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A Return to Militarism: The Symbolism of Recent North Korean Missile Tests

On November 28, 2019, North Korea tested its newly developed Multiple Rocket Launcher System (MRLS), firing two missiles from South Pyongan Province into the East Sea. The missiles flew 380km with an apex of 97km, within a minute of each other. This test signals the completion of the KN-25 MRLS system, adding to Pyongyang’s sizable ballistic missile arsenal, and making it easier for the regime to evade current missile defense systems stationed in the region.

A North Korean missile on display in Pyongyang in 2013. Photo courtesy of Stefen Krasowski © 2013

However, despite adding to North Korea’s arsenal, the new system does not present a major threat to the region. Rather, the bigger threat is Kim Jung-un’s recent and continued lashing out at a perceived lack of progress diplomatically with the United States. If this trend continues, then there is a likelihood of North Korea forgoing diplomacy in 2020 in favor of a more militaristic foreign policy. As Kim has grown more and more frustrated, he has started to show signs of a more militaristic mindset.

Such a shift is largely due to the perceived lack of flexibility in the Untied State’s negotiating position regarding sanctions relief. After working-level talks in Sweden on 5 October 2019 broke down, Kim Myung-gil, North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator, expressed frustration that the United States did not drop its commitment to maintaining the current sanctions on North Korea. A larger statement released by North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs went further, saying, “recent negotiations have left us skeptical about the US political will to improve the DPRK-US relations” and argued the real intent of the negotiations was to abuse North Korea into capitulation with American demands.

North Korea’s November 28 test is emblematic of a larger trend toward militarism in North Korean strategic thinking. Since August 2019, North Korea has conducted 8 tests of various missile systems focused on the development of short-ranged ballistic missiles and multiple rocket-launcher systems capable of evading current missile defense platforms stationed in South Korea.

Of these tests, Kim Jung-un was present at seven and, according to North Korean state media, expressed his appreciation for the ardent patriotism of the party officials overseeing these tests. Attendance at missile tests accounts for 42% of Kim Jung-un’s public appearances since August. Current trends in North Korea’s political strategy—fervently pushing the end of the year deadline and rapid missile testing—indicates a possible shift from diplomacy to militarism in 2020.

With this in mind, the United States should not downplay North Korean missile launches as routine or normal. This strategy minimizes the impact such tests can have on the development of Pyongyang’s missile program, as well as disregards the growing militarism in North Korean strategic thinking. Therefore, the United States needs to work with regional allies—South Korea and Japan—to ensure missile defense systems can effectively address new threats from these tests. The Trump administration also needs to advance a more dynamic diplomatic strategy focused on long-term security over short-term deals, which effectively punt the issue down the road.

Without a long-term strategy, growing militarism in North Korean foreign policy is likely to present a myriad of security issues to the United States and Washington’s interest in East Asia. A major provocation—a nuclear test for example—is likely to catch the United States, and other regional actors by surprise, weakening any response and emboldening North Korea to continue acting in such a manner.

Based on recent trends within North Korea, Kim Jung-un will likely revert to a more militaristic foreign policy if his end of the year deadline is ignored by the United States. Currently, Washington is in a position to develop a long-term strategy to address this trend, but instead chooses to downplay the significance of recent tests. Without a clear plan in place, future North Korean actions will continue to push the envelope until the United States has no choice but to act, a losing scenario for the region as a whole.

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Benjamin Zimmer

Benjamin is a Master of International Affairs student at The Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University where he focuses on East Asia and intelligence. He is the creator of The Korea Page: News and Analysis from the Korean Peninsula. His research interests include North Korean politics, the North Korea-United States relationship, and nuclear proliferation. His writings have appeared in The Peninsula Report, Foreign Policy Press, and The Sphere. He can be found on twitter at @bzimmer8.

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