Another week, another North Korean weapons test.
North Korea’s relentless, carefully calibrated barrage of firepower — Tuesday’s test was its eighth since late July — has managed to normalize a martial display of defiance that not too long ago raised fears of war in one of the most dangerous corners of the world.
The tests, which have been repeatedly dismissed by President Donald Trump as routine, are just the latest bit of proof that North Korea, a small, fiercely proud, totalitarian nation surrounded by big neighboring powers that are often unfriendly, is a master at getting a lot from a little.
North Korea has done this, in part, by testing shorter-range missiles and artillery. That means weapons that could possibly hit rivals South Korea and Japan — but, and this is key, not the U.S. mainland, as the longer-range weapons it tested in 2017 were designed to do.
This strategy allows the North to perfect its growing short-range arsenal’s technology, stealth and maneuverability.
But it also sends two simultaneous and crucial, from its point of view, signals to the United States: By avoiding Trump’s red line of tests of long-range missiles or nuclear bombs, it keeps alive the possibility of a return to disarmament talks that Pyongyang hopes will provide it with relief from crushing international sanctions imposed as it boosted its missile and nuclear capabilities over the last several years. It also clearly reminds Washington that if the North does not get what it wants from negotiations, the resumption of tests of much scarier weapons is a real possibility.
Tuesday’s test has still not been fully analyzed by outside experts, but it appears to fit a pattern.
The previous tests have revealed short-range missile and rocket artillery systems that could expand North Korea’s ability to strike targets throughout South Korea, including U.S. military bases there.
The one wrinkle this time: The most recent test came hours after the North offered to resume nuclear diplomacy with the United States — but only if Washington shows it has changed its approach since the failed nuclear summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February.
“On the one hand, it’s a classic good cop, bad cop routine,” Vipin Narang, a North Korea nuclear specialist at MIT, said in a message. “On the other hand, it may be aimed at improving or perfecting certain technologies before talks begin, for technical reasons.”
The Hanoi meeting fell apart when Trump rejected Kim’s demand for sweeping sanctions relief in return for partial disarmament.
Besides playing well in North Korean domestic propaganda aimed at showing strength in the face of outside pressure, the tests allow the North to demonstrate improvements in mobility, solid fuel, speed and in tricky flight patterns that could dodge regional missile defense systems.
“If some of those technologies and concepts eventually find themselves in the long-range systems, they can develop a much more responsive and penetrative and dangerous missile force against Japan, U.S. bases and the homeland,” Narang said, adding that the missiles, taken together, could “pose a nightmare.”
“Imagine a lot of these different types of missiles being fired at once — identifying, characterizing, and tracking them, something that (South Korea) seems to have had trouble doing … let alone intercepting all of them, may be an insurmountable challenge,” he said.
So what does North Korea want from a resumption of talks with Washington?
First off, security guarantees from the United States, which it accuses of a hostile policy that aims to overthrow its government. And in return for limited nuclear disarmament steps, it is pushing for an easing of harsh U.S.-led sanctions that outside analysts believe may be damaging the country’s already battered economy.
Hours ahead of Tuesday’s launch, the North’s first vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, said that North Korea is willing to resume nuclear diplomacy with the United States in late September, but that Washington must come to the negotiating table with acceptable new proposals. She said if the proposals don’t satisfy North Korea, dealings between the two countries may come to an end.
Trump called North Korea’s announcement “interesting.”
North Korea has so far avoided the kind of long-range missile tests that in 2017 had Trump and Kim threatening each other with war and trading crude insults.
But the recent short-range tests may put a different sort of pressure on Washington by raising “tensions in a way that creates a heightened sense of urgency behind getting a diplomatic deal on North Korea’s own terms,” said Mintaro Oba, a former Korea expert at the U.S. State Department.
There’s a danger to this tactic, however.
“North Korea conducting missile tests is sort of the geopolitical equivalent of the boy who cried wolf,” Oba said in an email. “The more North Korea conducts these very calculated tests, the less credibility we attach to the threat that North Korea would actually use nuclear weapons.”
“North Korea,” he said, “has to tread the line between using these tests to gain leverage and getting Washington so acclimated to this tactic that it has increasingly little impact.”