Anything New in North Korea’s Newest Provocation?

Pedestrians pass a television displaying a report of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the recent missile launch. Tokyo, Japan, February 7, 2016. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

International responses to North Korea’s nuclear and satellite/missile tests of recent weeks have taken on a highly ritualized nature: test, outrage, condemnation, test again, escalation, de-escalation, and return to an ever-changing new normal. Three important questions are being asked: What is the relationship of the satellite test to the country’s missile and nuclear programs; what are the motives; and what is to be done in response?

Already this week, Japan and South Korea have imposed new sanctions, while the United States has passed “secondary” sanctions legislation, potentially targeting third parties such as Chinese firms doing business with North Korea. The question of how to get Beijing to act on Pyongyang’s actions remains more complicated than it appears, however. While China’s fundamental view of the North Korean situation has not changed—that resolution depends on the US and a return to the Six Party Talks—Beijing is facing new constraints. First, it is in the embarrassing situation of having to do at least something at the United Nations Security Council, given past resolutions Beijing itself has shaped. Second, international tolerance is declining not only for North Korea but for Chinese even-handedness. This makes the pursuit of secondary sanctions and even military options, such as deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missiles, more likely.

Satellites or Missiles?

First, let’s dispense with the obvious: although nominally a “satellite launch,” the North Korean test on February 6th was clearly a further investment in the regime’s missile program.

According to South Korean news service Yonhap, the satellite weighed about 200 kilograms, or double that of one launched in December 2012. That previous “earth observation” satellite—nominally designed to track crop production—appeared to fail almost immediately. US sources have confirmed the new satellite is in stable orbit, but is evidently not transmitting data back to Earth. The launch vehicle appears from initial comparisons to be broadly similar to the one used in 2012, though more will be known from recovery of the early stage debris.

Whether this method of developing intercontinental ballistic missile capability is efficient is another question. The current engines probably do not have adequate thrust to deliver a warhead; the capacity to adequately miniaturize a weapon remains in doubt; and accuracy is more of a challenge as ranges lengthen. Above all, neither intermediate nor intercontinental missiles capable of carrying a serious payload have been flight-tested, leaving doubts about their capacity to survive turbulence and re-entry. Moreover, the space launch vehicles are fixed above ground and too large to be made mobile; they are at least in theory highly vulnerable to pre-emptive attacks.

Nonetheless, missile development is a learning process, and not only for the North Koreans. In a little-noticed action last month, the US Treasury announced new sanctions on 11 Iranian entities and individuals associated with that country‘s ballistic missile program. However, two of them were explicitly singled out as cooperating with the North Koreans on booster rocket technology.

North Korea has repeatedly asserted its right to the peaceful use of space and has done so again. However, UN Security Council Resolution 1874 closes down this argument from a legal perspective, demanding that the country “not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology, and “suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launches.”

While not influencing Pyongyang’s behavior, these demands do place constraints on China’s freedom of maneuver. How long can Beijing call for calm in the face of blatant violations of Security Council resolutions that it had an important role in shaping?


There was nothing obvious in the international setting that anticipated the satellite launch or January’s nuclear test before it. The tests did not respond to any obvious provocation on the part of South Korea or the US. Except in 2006, tests have not proven a successful means for North Korea to secure negotiations, compromises, or rewards; to the contrary, they have routinely generated new sanctions and international approbation.

There is thus good reason to question interpretations that see these tests as part of some complex strategic dance designed to get international attention. To what end exactly? The more plausible alternative is that nuclear weapons and the missile program are seen as permanent features, not only of North Korea’s grand strategy, but of leader Kim Jong-un’s domestic messaging as well.

Evidence in support of this interpretation abounds, including the attention given to Kim Jong-un’s and the party’s role in directing the launch, in the connection of the test to the country’s technological advances, and above all in the recurrent trope of standing up to the American imperialists. As the country’s 7th Party Congress approaches, more nuclear and missile propaganda can be expected, not less. Indeed, South Korea’s national intelligence service is already briefing lawmakers there on the possibility of a fifth nuclear test.

What Is to Be Done?

Opinions about possible international responses abound, but the debate can essentially be boiled down to how Beijing might be made to act: through diplomacy or by raising the costs of inaction?

It is too early to judge the outcome of negotiations in New York. A Security Council statement issued after the missile test shows the bind that China is in: “The members of the Security Council restated their intent to develop significant measures in a new Security Council resolution in response to the nuclear test conducted by the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] on January 6, 2016, in grave violation of the DPRK’s international obligations.” Members also recalled that they had expressed determination to take “further significant measures” in the event of another missile launch, which is now being debated.

South Korea has been particularly dogged on the point this time. A succession of high-ranking officials have promised that the North would experience “serious consequences.” The South Korean media subsequently confirmed that this statement was modified by the clause “from the international community,” but in a surprise move two days ago President Park Geun-hye shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea, a significant source of foreign exchange for the regime. The move was aimed as much at Beijing as Pyongyang, with the benefits of Park’s diplomatic strategy toward China increasingly being challenged.

As usual, China is doing everything in its power to lower expectations and shift responsibility back to the US, as confirmed by Ministry of Foreign Affairs statements since the nuclear test. This time, however, the political alignment in the US is pointing away from continued strategic patience. Those arguing for a return to negotiations seem to be living in a parallel universe from where elite political opinion is headed. In the recent Republican presidential candidates’ debate, Jeb Bush openly pondered a pre-emptive strike. This type of rhetoric is not unprecedented, but its adoption by more sober candidates indicates a possible hardening of official responses.

The US and South Korea have already agreed to open formal negotiations on the deployment of THAAD, to the displeasure of China, which also vehemently opposes secondary sanctions. Beijing’s response of hunkering down is therefore likely to parallel that of Pyongyang. Nonetheless, the responses of the US, South Korea, Japan, and others suggest that they are intending to act both unilaterally and in concert to protect themselves regardless of what Beijing thinks.

Stephan Haggard is Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies; Director of the Korea-Pacific Program; and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego.

A version of this article appeared on North Korea: Witness to Transformation.