(Bloomberg) -- North Korea’s latest barrage of missiles may look like another attempt to ratchet up hostilities in return for some sort of leverage at the bargaining table. But the launches over the past two weeks seem different.
Unlike previous provocations, his regime has mostly refrained from trumpeting the missiles along with the usual creative vitriol directed at the US and its allies. Kim Jong Un himself has been out of the public eye for more than three weeks, his longest absence in a year. State media on Thursday released a photo of a floral arrangement given to Kim, but no pictures of him.
That could always indicate Kim is facing some health problems, or just taking a break. In August, his sister revealed that Kim was “seriously ill” after suffering from “high fever” during a Covid outbreak.
But more broadly, the subdued posture suggests North Korea is intent on letting actions speak louder than words as it looks to build a credible nuclear threat. And a big reason is because Kim has more reliable partners in China and Russia, which supported sanctions against his regime at the United Nations only five years ago.
That raises the prospect for greater escalation in the coming weeks and months. The US, Japan and South Korea have already warned that Kim’s regime is readying its first atomic detonation since 2017, a test that could help North Korea miniaturize warheads for new short-range missiles it has rolled out in the past few years.
“North Korea clearly has decided that the US-Russia and US-China divide works to its advantage economically and politically and, for now at least, has decided to cast its lot with the Russians and the Chinese rather than pursuing diplomacy with the US,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a regional issues manager at the Vienna-based Open Nuclear Network who worked as an analyst for the CIA’s Open Source Enterprise for almost two decades.
“The current vicious cycle will not end anytime soon,” she added. “North Korea is not interested in talks right now, and the US and South Korea will not make the kind of concessions that might entice Pyongyang back to the talks table.”
North Korea has fired 10 ballistic missiles in less than two weeks, including two on Thursday toward waters where the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier group had been deployed that were accompanied by a two-sentence Foreign Ministry statement -- brief by Pyongyang standards.
The launches have corresponded with the carrier group’s movements around the Korean Peninsula starting in late September. The Ronald Reagan had returned to the region after North Korea on Tuesday fired its first missile over Japan in five years.
While North Korea has a habit of timing provocations with political events, the latest missiles have shown more focus than at almost any other time during Kim’s decade in power. For instance, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles last month just hours after US Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas.
What’s more, North Korea’s weapons are much better than in 2017, when soaring tensions prompted Donald Trump to warn Kim of “fire and fury” in response. His regime has modernized its arsenal with missiles that are quicker to deploy and more accurate.
“The slew of recent missile launches is a tit-for-tat response from the North to demonstrate its deterrence capabilities against the US and South Korea,” said Hong Min, director of North Korean Research Division at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. Pyongyang “is now more focused on showcasing the actual deployment of its weapons in the real world to demonstrate that they can fire at any time, which presents a real threat.”
The strategy is consistent with North Korea’s stated desire to be respected as a nuclear power, and force the US and its allies to abandon any hope of either denuclearization or regime change. Last month, Kim declared he would never give up his nuclear weapons and passed a law that called for an automatic nuclear strike if he was ever incapacitated by a foreign attack.
On Thursday, as naval vessels from Japan and South Korea joined warships in the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier group for missile-defense drills in waters off the Korean Peninsula, about a dozen North Korean military aircraft flew in formation near its side of the border. The moves were the latest in reciprocal shows of force that have come during the recent missile tests by Pyongyang.
North Korea has also ignored Biden administration calls to return to nuclear disarmament talks that have been dormant for three years. Instead, it appears more focused on advancing its ability to deliver a credible nuclear strike on the US and its allies.
“The big picture here is that North Korea is pursuing a longer-term goal to improve its nuclear and missile arsenals both qualitatively and quantitatively,” said Naoko Aoki, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Asia Security Initiative.
In January 2021, just before Biden took office, Kim spelled out his plans for weapons development. The roadmap called for smaller and lighter nuclear weapons, developing a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile that would be quick to deploy, and improving the ability to strike strategic targets within 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles) -- a thinly veiled reference to the US.
The White House may respond to the latest launches with additional sanctions, according to an administration official who requested anonymity to discuss internal thinking. Still, the White House has its hands full with Russia’s war in Ukraine abroad and midterm elections in November, indicating North Korea isn’t a policy priority.
“Before the midterms, any kind of a concession from the US is unlikely,” said James Kim, a senior research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
The longer North Korea stays on the back burner, the better it is for Kim. It gives him more time to expand his arsenal, cement his status as a nuclear power and increase the threat of a nuclear strike to deter any attempts to topple his reign.
(Updates with North Korean air force maneuvers.)
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.
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