Author: Liang Tuang Nah, RSIS
From November 2021 through till January 2022, Pyongyang has violated UN resolutions and caused significant alarm in the international media by testing a plethora of missiles. But the international community needn’t be intimidated by North Korea’s missile testing, as they have little strategic impact. Standing firm against Pyongyang is still the best course of action.
The missiles ranged from cruise missiles to railway borne missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles, submarine launched ballistic missiles, new surface to air missiles, an intermediate range ballistic missile and run of the mill short-range missiles. Still, the international policy of comprehensive pressure should remain. Although North Korean Supreme leader Kim Jong-un wants economic sanctions to be lifted, missile showboating as a process to achieve this must never be legitimised.
Going off the missile reliability requirements of military powers like the United States, Russia and China, 12–36 tests are needed to assure war time reliability. Aside from short or medium range missiles that have been extensively tested since the Kim Il-sung era, the regime’s rocket scientists would be hard pressed to assure themselves that their latest weapons can function as touted. A handful of tests do not constitute proof of a definitive operational threat to South Korea, the United States and Japan.
What Pyongyang more likely possesses is a potentially enhanced deterrent, a luxury dependent on risk averse defence planners from foreign countries who promote caution in diplomacy and operational war planning. If Washington could only achieve an 83.4 per cent effectiveness rate for their Tomahawk cruise missiles during the 1991 Gulf War, the functionality of North Korean missiles is ostensibly far lower. Whether or not Kim’s new missiles can induce enough strategic uncertainty in Washington and Seoul is anyone’s guess, but reliability statistics are not on Pyongyang’s side.
Even if Kim’s latest military ‘equalisers’ are effective, the regime cannot defy economic reality to produce sufficient numbers of sophisticated missiles by diktat alone. With an economy approximate to Botswana’s in size, Pyongyang maintains its current military spending by diverting up to 23.3 per cent of its GDP towards defence. The DPRK would be hard pressed to gather the financial wherewithal for a technologically upgraded and quantitatively beefed-up missile arsenal. The drastically tightened UN sanctions from 2016–17 have certainly put the brakes on the introduction of new missile models.
Despite labour and other costs being significantly lower in North Korea, cutting-edge missiles are intrinsically expensive due to costly components. The North’s decrepit economy is unable to produce enough of these weapons to affect the inter-Korean strategic power balance. At the very least, North Korea requires an expanded time horizon to achieve its technological ambitions, giving regional governments breathing room to plan an appropriate response.
Logically speaking, the Kim regime knows that North Korea cannot dominate or absorb South Korea. The use of nuclear arms or ballistic missiles against any South Korean or US targets would provoke a war that would likely lead to the termination of the Kim dynasty. Since loss of power is the last thing that Kim wants, antagonising the US–South Korea alliance into serious military retaliation is off the books.
Observations near the DMZ and in North Korea support this assertion. There is no evidence of internal strife or an attempted coup within the North Korean elite. Kim Jong-un’s success in quelling such resistance would need to be reinforced by displays of overt dominance, emphasising his exclusive leadership qualifications. Indeed, high profile military adventurism against the US–South Korea alliance would serve as a concrete demonstration to his domestic audience of his mettle and legitimacy as supreme leader.
Another sign of an impending offensive would be indirect indications of troop mobilisation. If the Korean People’s Army (KPA) wishes to place its forces on a war footing without triggering an immediate response, it would halt all civil duties carried out by KPA units, since a large chunk of the KPA is utilised for economic work. Intelligence analysts should look for North Korean air force planes being moved into hardened or underground shelters and navy vessels leaving their ports in droves. These moves reduce the target signature of the KPA’s air and sea assets, preserving their strike capacity. None of these actions have been observed.
Kim’s latest missiles are at best demonstration prototypes, economic limitations prevent the upgrade and expansion of Pyongyang’s missile arsenal, and significant military action from the North is improbable. So Kim’s prolific missile firing is coercive communication designed to remind the Biden administration of North Korea’s alleged capabilities — compelling Washington to negotiate on terms favourable to Pyongyang.
But Biden is preoccupied with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and managing contentious China–US ties is a secondary priority. That makes Pyongyang’s shenanigans a tertiary issue, if even that. With Kim doubtless aware of Biden’s priorities, the international community will likely see more escalatory actions from North Korea in the weeks ahead.
This ‘manufactured’ missile crisis can be likened to a petulant child throwing a tantrum and, to Asian security analysts, the coercion–negotiation cycles of the Kim dynasty should be all too familiar. Despite the North’s provocations, Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and like-minded allies should not acquiesce to any one-sided negotiations.
Instead, efforts should go towards using economic and diplomatic levers to encourage strict international enforcement of all sanctions against North Korea, strengthening global cyber defences to stymie North Korean cyber and crypto currency fraud, and using all avenues to intercept Pyongyang’s maritime smuggling.
Liang Tuang Nah is a research fellow in the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.