Kim Jong Un has once again conducted a test launch, this time of the 300mm multiple rocket launcher (MRL) system, just six days after testing the KN-23 missile and two months after North Korea’s initial violations, on May 4 and May 9, of the testing moratorium that began in November 2017 after Pyongyang’s last intercontinental ballistic missile test. Testing the 300mm MRL and the KN-23 enhances Pyongyang’s ability to strike at key air bases in the Republic of Korea (ROK), but the tests’ strategic significance lies in their expression of Kim’s confidence that the U.S. and ROK are unwilling to hold him accountable because their desire for negotiations far exceeds his own.
North Korea’s ballistic missile tests are a clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718. This act of defiance has military value for North Korea, which must test both the 300mm MRL and the KN-23, a variant of the Russian Iskander, before it can fully field the systems. The four tests over the past two months may be the final ones necessary. There is also speculation that the North Korean military is moving from testing the KN-23 to training its troops how to use the system, which is likely the real indicator that it is being made operational. Pyongyang’s motive to field these systems now may stem from an assessment that the ROK’s procurement of stealthy F-35 aircraft from the U.S. could enable the ROK Air Force to penetrate North Korean air space undetected for preemptive attacks on missile-launch sites and mobile missiles. Seoul refers to this as its “kill-chain” missile defense concept. Fielding the KN-23 and the 300mm MRL is a logical response since they can target sites throughout the ROK, including Cheongu Air Base, where the F-35 will be based. The north’s recent propaganda statement appears to allude to this base, among others, as a “fat target .”
The strategic context for the latest missile and rocket tests is President Trump’s determination to protect his personal relationship with Kim so their unconventional and experimental top-down diplomacy can continue. Kim may believe that Trump gave him the green light to conduct the tests, an attitude reflected in the president’s comments that he was “not at all” alarmed by the launches. South Korea reinforced this perception with a statement that the U.S. will not impose additional sanctions. Regrettably, such tolerance only rewards the regime’s blackmail diplomacy, through which it extracts political and economic concessions for short-term pauses in its provocations.
The precise timing of the North Korean tests may reflect Kim’s displeasure with the upcoming ROK/U.S. combined readiness exercises, the deployment of a U.S. attack submarine to Busan, or the ROK procurement of the F-35 aircraft. Yet these are all legitimate forms of defense cooperation, whereas Kim flagrantly violated a UN Security Council resolution.
The KN-23 and 300mm MRL tests also follow the leak of a North Korean document that quotes Kim as saying he will not denuclearize, even though a senior U.S. official was told in a meeting at Panmunjom that working-level negotiations would take place soon. Thus, if working-level talks proceed, they will just be part of Kim’s “long con,” as practiced for decades by the Kim family regime.
Kim’s provocations illustrate the need for a fundamental shift in allied policy, which the ROK/U.S. strategic working group can fully elaborate. If there is any prospect of negotiating verifiable denuclearization, the alliance must implement a Maximum Pressure 2.0 campaign with five lines of effort: diplomacy, military deterrence, aggressive sanctions enforcement, cyber operations, and information and influence activities. Nothing less will convince Kim that his nuclear arsenal is a strategic liability, not a vehicle for extortion.
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 he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow David on Twitter @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.