March 2, 2020 | Policy Brief

North Korea’s Latest Missile Test Underscores Its Relentless Military Ambitions

March 2, 2020 | Policy Brief

North Korea’s Latest Missile Test Underscores Its Relentless Military Ambitions

North Korea test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles on Monday. Pyongyang’s latest provocation shows that North Korea remains far more interested in expanding its military capabilities than in pursuing a diplomatic resolution of its conflict with the United States.

According to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the North Korean military, or Korean People’s Army (KPA), launched the missiles from transporter-erector-launcher vehicles located near North Korea’s eastern coast. The missiles flew approximately 240 kilometers and reached a maximum altitude of 35 kilometers. This test occurred only a few days after the United States and South Korea announced they will postpone joint military exercises due to coronavirus concerns.

An unnamed South Korean JCS officer suggested this missile launch was the continuation of a North Korean joint strike drill that began last Friday. The KPA is currently conducting its annual Winter Training Cycle, which will last until the end of this month. In February 2019, General Robert Abrams, the commander of United Nations Command, U.S.-Republic of Korea Combined Forces Command, and U.S. Forces Korea, told Congress that the Winter Training Cycle involves “a force of over one million engaged in individual and unit-level training throughout the country.”

On the day of this missile launch, South Korean Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo assessed that Pyongyang continues to pursue weapons development and capability enhancements amid the current diplomatic deadlock. Since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s failure to secure concessions from President Donald Trump at their Hanoi Summit, the North Korean regime has conducted 13 ballistic missile and rocket tests.

Additionally, Pyongyang’s persistent testing likely aims to coerce its adversaries into emergency negotiations in order to extort concessions in exchange for de-escalating tensions. The testing is likely also aimed at bolstering Kim’s domestic standing, particularly in light of his failure at Hanoi. By projecting strength and resolve, Kim aims to placate his military and the regime’s elite.

This latest missile test should be a wake-up call for Washington and Seoul regarding North Korea’s intent to develop more advanced weapons. While the United States and South Korea have cancelled, suspended, downgraded, and now postponed multiple joint military exercises over the last 18 months, there has been no reciprocity or reduction in hostile activity, tensions, or the overall threat posed by Pyongyang.

The United States and South Korea therefore should again readjust their combined military training regimen to ensure the highest state of readiness. While the alliance’s decision to postpone exercises for March was justified in light of the recent coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. and South Korean military leadership must also prioritize the readiness of their combined forces and return to a robust combined training program to effectively deter North Korean aggression.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. 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 analyst. Both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David, Mathew, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. 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.


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