At the end of March 2021, North Korea launched a series of short-range missiles. Some were quick to describe the move as yet another start to escalation in tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
At first, the DPRK test fired anti-ship cruise missiles on March 20 or 21. It was the first projectile launch since April 14, 2020, when North Korea fired missiles from both the ground and fighter jets into the East Sea, the day before the country marked the birthday of its late founder, Kim Il Sung, and South Korean legislative elections were held.
The news about the tests was reported on March 23 without excessive hype. Senior US officials confirmed the latest launches were part of “normal testing” and were not in violation of UN Security Council resolutions since they did not involve ballistic missiles that are under sanctions. Joe Biden reacted by saying nothing much had changed. “We do not believe that it is in our best interest to hype these things in circumstances, in which we would consider those activities as part of a ‘normal’ set of a tense military environment like we see on the Korean peninsula,” a US administration official stated.
Still, according to a March 24 article published by Yonhap News Agency, South Korea and the United States. appeared “to be downplaying the North’s recent missile activity”. Rep. Ha Tae-keung of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) seemingly criticized South Korea and the US for deciding not to make the firings public sooner in his Facebook post.
In the opinion of US expert Harry Kazianis, the North Korean leadership appeared to sense that the Biden administration “would try and rebuild a strong sanctions regime with the intended goal of putting more pressure” on the DPRK, hence “Pyongyang, through these new missile tests”, was signaling to Team Biden that its military capabilities would “continue to get more potent with each passing day”.
The aforementioned launches took place while the Biden administration was conducting its policy review of North Korea, and it is possible that the new team’s approach will be tougher towards Pyongyang than that of Donald Trump, who in his last years of presidency essentially put the Korean peace process on hold. After all, according to international security expert Ankit Panda, North Korea’s cruise missiles may be able to carry nuclear warheads with time.
On March 25, the DPRK tested two short-range missiles suspected, as reported by global media outlets, of being ballistic missiles whose launch is prohibited by UN Security Council resolutions. The last time such projectiles were test-fired was in March 2020.
According to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), “reliability of the improved version of solid fuel engine was confirmed through several engine ground jet tests and their test-firing processes, and that the irregular orbit features of low altitude gliding leap type flight mode already applied to other guided projectiles were also re-confirmed”. The aforementioned statement probably refers to the fact that “rather than following a general parabolic trajectory”, the tested missile showed “a more complicated path by doing a so-called pull-up maneuver over the course of its flight”, which makes it more difficult to intercept.
Based on images of this new short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) being launched, published in Rodong Sinmun, experts quoted by NK News thought that it resembled the new unidentified projectile first seen at the January parade in Pyongyang, which could be a “supersized” version of the KN23 ballistic missile also referred to as Kimskander. Russia’s North Korean missile program expert Vladimir Khrustalev also thinks that the SRBM in question is a more powerful version of its former self, similar to ROK’s Hyunmoo-4. Member of National Assembly Ha Tae-keung stated that, in theory, it was possible to mount nuclear weapons on such missiles. In addition, decreasing the weight of a warhead could presumably increase the range of the missile carrying it (i.e. from short to medium). Still, for now, this is pure conjecture.
After the second test firing, officials changed their tone. On March 26, President Moon Jae-in called the missile launches concerning.
Joe Biden’s response also differed to that before. “Let me say that, number one, UN resolution 1718 was violated by those particular missiles that were tested… We are consulting with our allies and partners, and there will be responses if they choose to escalate. We will respond accordingly,” he stated. A US Department of State official made a similar statement “North Korea’s unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs constitute serious threats to international peace and security and undermine the global nonproliferation regime“.
Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov also commented on the tests while visiting Seoul. In his opinion, it was important “for all concerned countries to make various endeavors, including the suspension of an arms race and all types of military activities, to maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia, including the Korean Peninsula”.
An article published on March 27 by Yonhap News Agency included a response to Joe Biden’s statements from Ri Pyong-chol, Vice Chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). He said that the US President’s “gangster-logic” encroached on DPRK’s right to self-defense. According to the North Korean official, the United States was able to launch ICBMs any time it wanted to, while the DPRK got criticized even if it conducted “a test of a tactical weapon”. He also stated his countrymen had “no choice but to build invincible physical power to defend” their nation at a time when Seoul and Washington continued “to conduct combined military exercises” that were a constant military threat to stability on the Korean Peninsula. “I think that the new US administration obviously took its first step wrong. If the US continues with its thoughtless remarks without thinking of the consequences, it may be faced with something that is not good,” Ri Pyong-chol warned. The official added that Pyongyang planned to increase its “overwhelming military power”.
On March 28, Jo Chol Su, Director-General for International Organizations at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, released a similarly worded statement. He said that the UN Security Council exercised double standards in taking issue with North Korea’s defense measures, and not with recent air strikes the US conducted against Syria and the test of a new-generation ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) by France, which for some reason were not viewed as a global threat. The official also criticized UN member states spearheading such moves as they undermined “global peace and stability”. His statement ended with the following sentence “Any attempt to infringe upon our right to self-defense will inevitably prompt a countermeasure in kind”.
The final verbal blow came from Kim Yo Jong, the “First Sister”. On March 30, Vice-Director of Information and Publicity Department of WPK Central Committee Kim Yo Jong lambasted the statements Moon Jae-in made at a “ceremony for commemorating the day of defending the West Sea” on March 26, when the ROK leader said he was aware of the deep concern felt by the public about the recent test-fire of missiles by the North, which made it more difficult for the DPRK, South Korea and the US to renew their dialogue. In the opinion of Kim Jong-un’s sister, his words were extremely offensive. After all, during Moon Jae-in’s visit to the Agency for Defense Development on July 23, 2020, the President was highly impressed with the “world-class precision and formidable destructive power” of ROK’s “cutting-edge strategic weapons essential for the defense of the nation”. She criticized his hypocritical stance by pointing out that “the test-firing of ballistic missiles conducted” by South Korea was portrayed as supporting peace and dialogue in the Korean Peninsula, while the launches by the DPRK were described as undesirable and aroused serious concern. According to Kim Yo Jong, Moon Jae-in’s shamelessness was shocking. She also referred to the South Korean leader as a parrot raised by the US in her statement,
and advised him to think about the way he was viewed in the world. On March 29, 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the “determination shared with South Korea and Japan to reduce regional threats” was unwavering in the face of North Korea’s recent missile launches. He also stated that the US and the two Asian allies stood united “in their commitment to advancing denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula”. The US official reiterated Washington’s position that the destabilizing projectile tests constituted “a violation of UN Security Council resolutions banning the communist state from launching ballistic missiles” and deserved condemnation.
On March 30, 2021, the UN Security Council convened its closed session to discuss the recent tests, reportedly on request by the UK, France and non-permanent members of the Council, such as Ireland, Norway and Estonia.
According to a March 29 article published by Yonhap News Agency, the Biden administration was “expected to push for additional sanctions” at the Security Council meeting, and such developments were in sharp contrast with the Trump team “that did not impose any sanctions even after North Korea test-fired missiles more than 30 times after the 2018 US-North summit in Singapore”. The report also stated that the Biden administration’s actions showed its members intended to keep their “promise to force North Korea to abide by the UN resolution that strictly bans all missile launches using ballistic missile technology”. In addition, Moon Jae-in was advised by the author not to push his Korean Peninsula Peace Process unilaterally as that would “only deepen South Korea’s diplomatic isolation”.
In a March 30 article, Spokesperson for the South Korean Ministry of National Defense Boo Seung-chan stated that the ROK had the ability “to fully intercept North Korea’s short-range missiles, including ballistic ones, with the South Korea-US missile defense system”.
Despite all the condemnation of North Korea’s tests, participants of the UN Security Council closed session chose not to take any immediate action. Reportedly, majority of council members expressed concerns about the latest developments and “renewed calls for denuclearization”. The session lasted only 30 minutes. Although few details about the meeting have been publicized, it would be safe to assume that the proposals made by the US and its allies did not find the required support.
Let us now draw some conclusions. The missile tests should not have come as a surprise since they were preceded by a number of events, with each deserving of attention. First of all, the United States and ROK held military drills, which, according to both sides, were scaled back. However, they were harshly criticized by North Korean officials. Kim Yo Jong did not hold back (especially towards the US) and warned the “Biden administration against military drills with South Korea” if they wanted a “good night’s sleep for the next four years”. North Korean officials announced a complete break in diplomatic relations with Malaysia after a DPRK citizen was extradited to the US for allegedly laundering funds. As a result, the North Korean will have to face these charges in the United States. In addition, the Biden administration has turned its attention to human rights issues in North Korea, planning to reappoint a special envoy focused on this area (this position was left vacant for the past four years). And all of this has been happening while the United States continues to review its policy on North Korea.
All these developments must have forced Pyongyang to respond with missile launches signaling that the North Korean leadership is not prepared to continue dialogue or talks with the United States unless the latter stops pursuing adversarial policies towards the DPRK. So far, Kim Jong Un has kept the pledges not to launch ICBMs or conduct nuclear weapons tests he made to Donald Trump even though the two did not sign a formal agreement.
The issue at hand now is “Will the North Korean leadership limit their response to the show of force or is something bigger in store?”. In other words, is their behavior expected to remain the same as during the Trump presidency or will there be an escalation in tensions, with a more impressive display of missile capabilities?
A number of US experts appear to have fairly pessimistic (or, if you will, realistic) points of view. For instance, Harry Kazianis thinks that North Koreans could “test bigger and more advanced missiles” in the near future and then ICBMs and even nuclear weapons. A recent Yonhap News Agency article stated there were fears that “the Kim Jong Un regime might return to its outdated brinkmanship tactics in hopes of gaining an upper hand over South Korea and the US”. Current discussions center on whether the DPRK leadership is prepared to risk having additional sanctions imposed against their country by taking provocative actions or not. After all, it is possible that they do not fear other embargos since the quarantine measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have already caused enough havoc at borders.
We will just have to wait and see.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.