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For months, the US and North Korea were engaged in ‘working-level’ talks on denuclearisation. For months, the resumption of these talks was supposedly ‘just weeks away’. Finally, the two sides have announced that a meeting will take place on 5 October. Close to 24 hours after this was confirmed, North Korea tested what is assumed to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from a location near Wonsan. Although this will be unlikely to damage diplomatic efforts in the short term, the episode should serve as a reminder that security and military confidence-building measures need to remain a central part of the peace and denuclearisation process.
From early assessments of North Korea’s most recent missile test, the missile is presumed to be a modified variation of North Korea’s SLBM, with state media declaring it a Pukguksong-3. Although North Korea already broke their 18-month missile testing hiatus in May this year, this test is the first since 2017 that could involve a nuclear-capable missile. Given that scheduled talks with the US are just days away, why did North Korea decide to conduct this test now?
North Korea has a track record of conducting missile tests in response to perceived US and South Korean military threats. Not only did Pyongyang protest the most recent US–South Korea military exercises, but the regime has made clear its displeasure towards Seoul acquiring the F-35, which President Moon Jae-in showcased earlier this week. The most recent tests can also be understood in this context as a signal to remind the US that for diplomacy to be more than a Band-Aid solution to the problem of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula, the conversation must be broader than just a nuclear-for-sanctions trade-off.
Last year, a concentration on conventional security and military confidence-building was a key factor in driving diplomacy forward at a rapid pace, with the cancellation of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise – a combined military drill between South Korea and the US which would have involved the world’s largest computerised command-and-control manoeuvre – playing a key role in seeking to reassure North Koreans.
However, this year such steps appear to have declined in priority, either because of the perception that military confidence is being dealt with through the recently concluded inter-Korean agreement in the military domain which is supposed to remove many sources of tension between the two Koreas, or, more prosaically, because of misguided diplomacy. Either way, since the Hanoi summit between US and North Korean leaders Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in February this year, diplomacy appears to have fallen into old habits of trading North Korea’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
This is shortsighted. Not only was the foundation created in 2018 just that – a foundation on which to build – but efforts to take security-focused dialogue forward appear have been discarded. Ratcheting up this summer’s missile tests to an SLBM serves as a reminder to the US that if they don’t want to see these provocations continue to escalate, Washington had better turn up to talks with a new approach.
Pyongyang has clearly also calculated that continuing to develop its missile capabilities is not yet going to significantly damage the prospect of exploring the benefits diplomacy with the US could bring. In response to the tests carried out earlier in the year, President Trump dismissed the provocations as unconcerning because North Korea ‘didn’t say a warning to the United States’. Indeed, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also diminished their importance by referring to a right to self-defence as part of a nation’s sovereignty in the context of North Korea. This attitude to testing has given Pyongyang the green light to push the boundary on missile developments without closing the door to engaging with the US, while also making moves towards its aim of driving a wedge between the US and its East Asian allies.
This strategy probably also helps North Korea with the management of domestic concerns. Although insight into the internal decision-making calculations that lead towards a North Korean missile test is extremely limited, it is not insignificant. This year has seen a divergence in domestic commentary inside North Korea, with some internal forces appearing to question why North Korea is engaging in a denuclearisation dialogue. Missile tests, especially those that are nuclear capable, could be part of a domestic signalling strategy to demonstrate to those expressing concern over the engagement with the US that North Korea intends to remain a nuclear power.
The US is right not to let the recent missile tests scupper the prospects of diplomacy with North Korea or close the door on broader engagement. And sanctions and economic concessions will of course continue to form a crucial part of peace and denuclearisation with North Korea.
But as the recent events indicate, this should not happen at the expense of bolstering conventional security efforts. Efforts to improve the broader security environment on the peninsula and continue to reduce military risks should be reinstated to the top of the diplomatic checklist.
BANNER IMAGE: An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska (SSBN 739) off the coast of California, 2008. Courtesy of Ronald Gutridge/U.S. Strategic Command
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.