North Korea on Thursday launched two short-range ballistic missiles off its eastern coast from near the city of Wonsan. While President Trump downplayed the severity of these tests, noting that the projectiles were short-range and not intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the tests could enhance the versatility of Pyongyang’s arsenal and are clear violations of the UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which bans all ballistic missile activity.
South Korean and U.S. intelligence analysts have yet to confirm the exact type of missile that North Korea tested. Based on its distinctive flight pattern as well as its range and maximum altitude, however, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff assessed it to be a variation of the Russian Iskander missile. Ballistic missile experts such as Ankit Panda of the Federation of American Scientists speculate that Pyongyang re-tested its KN-23 short-range ballistic missile, which it last tested in early May and which also bears similarities to the Russian Iskander.
The KN-23 employs solid fuel propulsion, a more chemically stable option that allows for reduced reaction and reload times. These features could prevent the missile defense systems of North Korea’s adversaries from rapidly detecting its launches.
The timing of North Korea’s provocation is notable for two reasons. First, Pyongyang may have timed its missile tests to come shortly after Russian and Chinese military aircraft intruded into Seoul’s Korean Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ). This would further raise tensions amid South Korea’s own diplomatic and economic stand-off with Japan.
Even if North Korea did not time the tests in such a way, however, the confluence of these developments indicates that Pyongyang, Beijing, and Moscow all oppose the strategic objectives of the U.S. and its allies. Furthermore, the continuing decline of bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea puts the U.S. in a disadvantageous position by hampering efforts to shape a common strategic vision for addressing the North Korean threat.
Second, the launches come just before the U.S.-South Korea 19-2 Dong Maeng joint military exercises scheduled for this August. After Thursday’s tests, North Korean media outlets called the launches a “solemn warning” to South Korea against holding the exercises. Nevertheless, the Seoul stated that the U.S. and South Korea will still move forward with them. Kim Jong Un’s recent calls for both sanctions relief and U.S. “security guarantees,” a euphemism for putting an end to the U.S. military presence in Korea, suggests Pyongyang’s goal is to persuade Washington and Seoul to suspend the joint military exercise.
America and its allies should therefore expect Pyongyang to conduct more provocations below the threshold of nuclear and ICBM tests, in keeping with North Korea’s longstanding strategy of coercive bargaining to extort concessions from the U.S. and South Korea. North Korea’s return to provocations also suggests that Kim is not ready to conduct the working-level negotiations to which he supposedly agreed at the Trump-Kim meeting at Panmunjom.
Seoul and Washington’s decision to move forward with the exercises despite Pyongyang’s provocations is a step in the right direction. Looking ahead, Washington should prioritize helping South Korea and Japan resolve their differences in order to forge a unified front to deter North Korea’s aggression.
David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Mathew Ha is a research associate. Both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow David and Mathew on Twitter @davidmaxwell161 and @matjunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.