This has been a busy year for North Korea’s missile developers—having launched 25 missiles (both ballistic and cruise missiles). The “shots” typically land in the ocean east of the Korean Peninsula but short of Japanese maritime territory.
However, on Oct. 4, North Korea launched a ballistic missile that passed over northern Japan—prompting the Japanese government to issue a “take cover” warning to its citizens—before landing in the ocean to the east of Japan. This was the first North Korean missile shot over Japan since 2017.
Why Is North Korea Amping Up Missile Tests Again?
This is all part of the trial and error/experimentation that’s part and parcel of developing long-range missiles—particularly seeking to improve range, accuracy, payloads, delivery capabilities, etc. North Korea’s scientific and engineering skills are advanced, and they’ve gotten help from China, Iran, Pakistan, and others over the years—and still are.
There is a tendency to think that because the Pyongyang regime is almost comically brutal and can’t (or won’t) feed its own people, it must be incapable of advanced technological achievements. Don’t bet on it. The North Koreans may not be lovable, but they are intelligent.
North Korea has made gradual but steady progress with its missile and rocket (and nuclear weapons) capabilities over the last few decades. In some respects, it’s only an “engineering” problem, and they are figuring things out. North Korea has even built a submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles—and reportedly has another more capable one in the works. This isn’t easy to do.
Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear development have been slowed by outside pressure—led by the United States but including the Japanese, other Western nations, even the United Nations, and nominally the Chinese. However, it’s fair to say that such pressure has been sporadic, usually half-hearted, and rarely enforced in any serious way.
One exception was the Banco Delta Asia affair in the mid-2000s when the United States sanctioned a Macau-based bank for handling North Korean finances. The Americans appeared to be serious. This got Pyongyang’s attention—and Beijing’s as well. But after a fierce internal battle, the Bush administration backed off—relaxing the sanctions and returning North Korea’s money in exchange for a promise to talk. Really?
Importantly, so-called secondary sanctions have never been applied to China—beyond the merest of pinpricks. China is the lynchpin restraining North Korea and its missile and nuclear programs. Beijing could shut down North Korea in an afternoon—such is Pyongyang’s economic dependence on China.
What Are Pyongyang’s Political Goals?
It’s not as if the Kim regime has anything to boast about—with a third-world economy, a prison camp of a nation, and nowhere near enough food to feed its population. But missiles and nuclear weapons are what earn North Korea some “respect,” as dictator Kim Jong Un might say. Or, if not “respect,” at least “attention.” And he’s probably right.
North Korea’s conventional military forces are also a genuine threat—though mostly confined to the Korean Peninsula. However, with long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, the Kim regime is at least a regional player—and once it can range the U.S. mainland, it becomes a “global” player.
Kim also views these advanced weapons as deterring an attack by the Americans, the South Koreans, and perhaps the Japanese. At the same time, remember that Kim still intends to go on the offensive and “take” the entire Korean Peninsula—when a few things fall into place. Somehow remove U.S. forces from South Korea, and Pyongyang will think it has an opening—especially with missiles and nukes in the arsenal.