► As of November 16, North Korea had conducted or attempted 76 missile tests this year—more than in the last five years combined. This massive program of missile launches has left many wondering why North Korea has changed its tune—and why now?
► All of this testing is occurring now in part because Pyongyang is taking advantage of current geopolitical tensions. The war in Ukraine and the resultant widening gulf between the United States versus China and Russia has provided political cover for the regime’s recent activities.
► Continued efforts to convince Chinese and Russian leaders to sign on to sanctions in the event of the test could be critical. Meanwhile, continued bilateral and trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan can help to show Pyongyang that its “decoupling” efforts can only fail.
North Korea has blasted ahead with an unprecedented agenda of missile and weapons tests. As of November 16, North Korea had conducted or attempted 76 missile tests this year—more than in the last five years combined. This massive program of missile launches has left many wondering why North Korea has changed its tune—and why now?
All of this testing is occurring now in part because Pyongyang is taking advantage of current geopolitical tensions. The war in Ukraine and the resultant widening gulf between the United States versus China and Russia has provided political cover for the regime’s recent activities. That is, North Korea can safely assume that U.S. attention is diverted elsewhere, and it can continue to count on Russia and China to counter any U.S. efforts to garner global support for sanctions or reunite the team for Six Party Talks.
Thus, protected from international pressure, North Korea has been able to demonstrate its growing nuclear capabilities. These efforts accomplish several key goals for the regime, from furthering its attempts to foil the U.S.-South Korean alliance to reinforcing recent shifts in the state’s nuclear strategy.
By testing its long-range missiles, North Korea seeks to highlight U.S. vulnerability in an effort to “decouple” the United States from South Korea. That is, North Korea hopes that, by demonstrating its ability to inflict a nuclear attack on the United States, it can make Washington think twice before coming to South Korea’s aid in a fight.
Moreover, many of North Korea’s tests have occurred in response to U.S. and South Korean military exercises. Since Yoon assumed office last spring, these joint military exercises have resumed in full force, after the drills were cancelled and scaled down throughout the pandemic. In November, the joint forces held their largest-ever air exercise, to which North Korea responded with a series of missile launches. This response highlights North Korea’s concerns about close military cooperation between the United States and South Korea and could be intended to deter any further efforts between the countries at improving military capabilities or interoperability. This pattern of drill-and-response is far from unusual; scholars have shown North Korea is more likely to make threats and conduct weapons tests in response to military exercises.
North Korea is also using testing to send a message about the permeance of its nuclear arsenal. In September, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un declared that the nuclear status of North Korea was “irreversible,” and that denuclearization or “any negotiations to this end” would “never” happen without substantial political and military changes on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea has recently revised its laws to make its nuclear strategy more permissive, allowing for the preemptive use of nuclear weapons. The uptick in testing may be designed to demonstrate North Korea’s technical capabilities to actualize this strategy. Formally, the previous policy had been to limit nuclear use to retaliatory strikes.
However, preemption has long been a focus of how Pyongyang talks about nuclear weapons. New research quantifies just how often North Korea threatens its adversaries—its major media publication, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), published an average of 48 articles containing threats per month between 1996 and 2018. Almost half of these threats referenced nuclear weapons, 38 percent of which explicitly mentioned preemption.
Often, these involved calling out U.S. or South Korean military activities as preparations for surprise attacks or preemptive strikes against North Korea. This reflects longstanding North Korean concerns about U.S. and South Korean military exercises, as well as worries about the state’s ability to weather a preemptive attack. The new North Korean nuclear strategy, then, may reflect not only the state’s growing nuclear capabilities, but also a keen desire to deter a U.S. first strike. Pyongyang’s extensive program of missile testing provides a strong complement to these recent changes.
U.S. and South Korean officials have warned that the record-breaking pace of missile tests may be a prelude to a seventh nuclear test. Such a test would be North Korea’s first since 2017 and would push tensions on the Korean Peninsula dangerously high.
In response, the United States has moved to put pressure on North Korea’s nuclear program. The United States’ strategy in the face of North Korean nuclear threats now explicitly involves decapitating the North Korean regime. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said earlier this year that any North Korean nuclear attack on the U.S. or its allies would “result in the end of the Kim regime.” This rhetoric matches new guidance in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, which stated that “there is no scenario in which the Kim regime could employ nuclear weapons and survive.”
Moreover, ahead of the ongoing G-20 meetings, President Joe Biden met with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to discuss regional security challenges, including the nuclear threat from North Korea. Both Yoon and Kishida have been vocal about the threats North Korea poses. Earlier this month, a North Korean missile landed close to South Korea’s waters. In the aftermath, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol called the event effectively “territorial invasion by a missile.” The moment came less than a month after North and South Korean forces exchanged warning shots along their maritime border. And in September, a North Korean intermediate-range missile flew over Japanese territory, inflaming Tokyo’s concerns about nuclear security in the region.
Although no formal plans to resume negotiations with North Korea were announced after the trilateral talks, Biden publicly reaffirmed the U.S. extended deterrence commitment, and all three leaders vowed to strengthen cooperation and joint military readiness. They have also reportedly raised the issue in private talks throughout the G-20 sessions, in an attempt to build international agreement around the need to curb North Korea’s growing aggression, including by strengthening sanctions.
While China and Russia supported a tough UN sanctions regime against North Korea after its 2017 nuclear test, prospects for cooperation this time aren’t so rosy. The United States has already proposed strengthening sanctions on North Korea in response to its recent missile tests, but that effort was rejected by Russia and China.
Biden reportedly discussed the possibility of a coordinated response to a new North Korean nuclear test with Chinese President Xi Jinping at their meeting in Bali, saying that he had told the Chinese leader Beijing had an “obligation” to insist Kim Jong-Un refrain from nuclear testing. But Biden seemed pessimistic that China would be much helping, declaring “it’s difficult to determine whether or not China has the capacity” to check North Korea’s escalatory behavior. For his part, Xi has largely avoided the issue. Xi confirmed China has an interest in peace on the Korean Peninsula but has mainly encouraged South Korea to improve inter-Korean relations.
Meanwhile, Russia has grown closer with North Korea. The United States recently condemned North Korean missile and artillery sales to Russia in the wake of the challenges Moscow has faced to supply its forces in Ukraine. Earlier this year, North Korea issued a statement saying Washington was to blame for the situation in Ukraine, and North Korean officials have promised increased military cooperation with Russia and China.
Even the likelihood of Russian and Chinese involvement low, the United States must be prepared to lead a cooperative and international response if a North Korean nuclear test goes forward. Continued efforts to convince Chinese and Russian leaders to sign on to sanctions in the event of the test could be critical. Meanwhile, continued bilateral and trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan can help to show Pyongyang that its “decoupling” efforts can only fail.