On May 4, 2019, North Korea test fired a new short-range ballistic missile based on the Russian Iskander. Pyongyang tested the new missile again on May 9. These multiple tests signify North Korea’s intent to develop a new missile with the potential to fly undetected by advanced missile defense systems in South Korea. The launches were also a self-defensive signal that Pyongyang intends to grow its military in case of another diplomatic breakdown such as the one in Hanoi.
The Trump administration continues to provide mixed signals following the launch. National Security Advisor John Bolton argued that the tests violated United Nations Security Council Resolutions banning the test of ballistic missiles. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an interview with Chris Wallace, countered that the launch did not violate international norms since recent moratoriums centered on the testing of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) systems, not short-ranged missile systems. In Japan on May 27, President Trump said that he “views it differently” from those within his administration arguing the test was a violation.
Continued mixed signals from the Trump administration pose a critical question surrounding the most recent North Korea tests: did the testing of short-range missiles violate any recent or established international norms such as North Korea’s moratorium, recent inter-Korean agreements, American policy, or United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions?
Following the conclusion of the April 20, 2018 meeting of the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Kim Jung-un announced that “no nuclear test [sic] and intermediate-range and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for the DPRK now” since work on the nuclear arsenal had been completed. Since the announcement specifically highlighted intermediate and inter-continental missiles, the short-range missiles tested by North Korea are not in violation of this moratorium. In fact, by explicitly dealing with long-range missiles, Kim Jung-un was able to curry favor with the United States while leaving an opening for the regime to expand its capabilities by testing short-ranged missiles.
Section 2.1 of the Panmunjom Declaration, an agreement the leaders of North and South Korea signed in September 2018, stated that the two Koreas “agreed to cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain including land, sea, and air that are the root cause of military tensions and conflict.” Under this clause, a self-defensive launch, such as the ones in May, does not technically violate the agreement since it was meant as a signal of North Korea’s intentions to maintain a strong military in the case of future diplomatic breakdowns. However, Pyongyang’s expansion of its ballistic missile program is in violation of Section 3 of the Panmunjom Declaration, in which both Koreas agreed to work toward disarmament as a way to “actively cooperate to build permanent and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.”
The tests do not violate any agreement with the United States because North Korea has yet to sign any agreement with the United States on its missile programs. However, under the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, Congress found it necessary “to deny the government of North Korea access to funds” to develop its ballistic missile capabilities “instead of providing for the needs of the people of North Korea.” Moreover, the Department of Justice cited the act as a part of its justification for the seizure of the Wise Honest, a North Korean shipping vessel. Though North Korea did not violate any agreement with the United States, Washington effectively utilized the tests as justification for seizing a vessel accused of skirting international sanctions.
In 2006, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1718, which decided that North Korea must disarm and not launch any further ballistic missiles. Since then, the Security Council has passed six further resolutions, the most recent being Resolution 2397 in December 2017, reaffirming, in the strongest terms possible, that North Korea shall not conduct any further ballistic missile tests. None of the resolutions make any distinction between short and long-range missiles. Therefore, North Korea’s missile tests early in May 2019 are clear violations of several UNSC resolutions. Though North Korea acted in a self-defensive manner, its May 2019 tests are in clear violation of Section 3 the Panmunjom Declaration and a variety of UNSC resolutions.
Therefore, the international community must work to ensure North Korea is punished for violating its international agreements. Tightening sanctions enforcement by seizing the Wise Honest was a good start, and the Trump Administration should work to tie the ship directly to North Korea’s recent violations. This process can be furthered by working to get a signed moratorium on the testing of any ballistic missiles in return for the release of the vessel.