North Korea on Saturday tested a new short-range missile system and a multiple-rocket launch system, marking the regime’s first missile launches since November 2017. The tests reflect Kim Jong Un’s continued adherence to the regime’s longtime strategy of blackmail diplomacy, which seeks to secure sanctions relief without making meaningful concessions of its own.
The projectiles “landed in the water east of North Korea and didn’t present a threat to the United States or South Korea or Japan,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday. At the same time, he said, the United States remained committed to reaching a deal with Pyongyang to achieve its “final and fully verified denuclearization.”
The tested short-range missile is a new system (based on the Russian Iskander) for North Korea’s military. Both the missile system and the rocket system can now target major U.S. military bases in South Korea, namely the newly built Camp Humphreys and Osan Air Base and beyond.
Kim’s provocations suggest that he still has not made the strategic decision to relinquish his nuclear arsenal. Since the failed U.S.-North Korean summit in Hanoi in February, Kim has built up to this latest missile test through a series of provocative actions.
They included the North Korean military’s air exercises; suspicious movement of railcars at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, suggesting transfer of radioactive material; the imposition of an end-of-year deadline for a U.S. “change in attitude”; the rehabilitation of the Sohae missile launch facility; and additional conventional weapons tests.
The tests also come days after a UN assessment that 10 million North Koreans suffer from food shortages after the worst harvest in the last decade. In recent weeks, the regime has used the shortages as part of an information campaign aimed at pressuring Washington to lift sanctions.
These steps indicate that Kim is eager to return to talks with the U.S. and South Korea – but only if they capitulate to his demands.
Consequently, the U.S. and its allies should not attend another summit or offer any concessions to Kim. Doing so would only further embolden him and strengthen his negotiating position.
Instead, the U.S. should intensify maximum pressure through sanctions and diplomatic isolation backed by a robust military posture. It is imperative for Washington to focus on the tripartite framework of deterring further North Korean aggression, containing its proliferation and proliferation-financing activities, and managing regional alliances that are critical to the foundation of maximum pressure.
As a precondition for any future summit, the Trump administration should also insist on conducting working-level talks to define “denuclearization.” The U.S. definition entails the final and fully verifiable dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear and non-nuclear weapons program. North Korea’s definition, however, requires a reciprocal removal of America’s troops and nuclear umbrella from the region.
Further progress in negotiations is contingent upon reaching a consensus definition and developing a roadmap to achieve it. This would provide the clearest indication that Kim is indeed serious about denuclearization.
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.