North Korea missile tests: Tactical move? - GulfToday

North Korea missile tests: Tactical move?


Joe Biden

North Korea has been making a dogged march toward building a viable arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles able to target any city on the US mainland. But the nation’s extraordinary run of missile tests this year — its most ever — is also meant to grab the attention of an important audience: President Joe Biden.

Washington has responded to the missiles with tough statements and weapons launches of its own in military drills with ally Seoul.

So far, however, there’s been little indication that the Biden administration will — or even can — pursue the messy, politically dangerous diplomacy needed to peacefully solve a problem that has bedevilled US presidents for decades. Thursday’s launches, believed to be two short-range ballistic missiles, were North Korea’s sixth round in less than two weeks. On Tuesday, Pyongyang staged its longest-ever launch, sending a missile capable of hitting US military concerns on Guam flying over US ally Japan and into the Pacific.

Later on Thursday, North Korea flew 12 warplanes near the Korean border, the world’s most heavily armed, prompting South Korea to launch 30 military planes in response.

North Korea is a small, impoverished, widely shunned nation sandwiched between great powers, but it has built, against great odds, its atomic weapons programme through tenacity, shrewd political manoeuvring and cutthroat persistence. Each North Korean weapons test does at least three things at once. It allows Kim Jong Un to show his people that he’s a strong leader capable of standing up to foreign aggressors. His scientists can work on solving the technological issues still holding back the weapons programme, including miniaturising warheads so they fit on an array of missiles and making sure the long-range missiles can smoothly reenter the Earth’s atmosphere.

And, perhaps most important, each test sends a clear message that despite all the many problems the Biden administration faces — the war in Ukraine; increasing Chinese aggression; a shaky economy at home — Washington must deal with North Korea as it is. Meaning, a nation that, after many years of striving, is on the edge of being a legitimate nuclear power, and not one that has shown any recent signs of being willing to abandon its nuclear weapons. Long-term, Kim likely wants US recognition that North Korea is a full nuclear state. Negotiations could then arrange a North Korean rollback of parts of its weapons programme in return for lifting crippling international sanctions and eventually signing a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War.

Further down the road, North Korea wants the nearly 30,000 US forces in South Korea to leave, opening the way for its eventual control of the peninsula. In the short term, Pyongyang has maintained that talks can’t happen unless Washington abandons its “hostility.” Presumably, this means economic sanctions, the presence of those US troops and their annual military drills with South Korean soldiers that the North sees as invasion preparation. It is unclear, however, how patient Kim can afford to be.  The North’s economy, never great, appears to be worse than at any time in Kim’s rule, after three years of some of the tightest border controls in the world during the pandemic, crushing sanctions, natural disasters and government mismanagement. Its weapons tests may be a move to force more favourable conditions in future talks. For the second time in two weeks Washington has sent the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier to waters east of South Korea, a move North Korea called “a serious threat to the stability of the situation on the Korean Peninsula.”

The United States and South Korea responded this week to the missiles with their own land-to-land ballistic missiles and precision-guided bombs dropped from fighter jets.

As the Biden administration considers next steps, it is closely watching how North Korea’s weapons tests influence its allies in Northeast Asia.

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