By Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra*
On 19 October 2021, North Korea tested another ballistic missile. It was reportedly a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Sinpo is a port city in North Korea’s South Hamgyong Province, on the coast of the East Sea. The city is known to be a hub for naval facilities in North Korea. The missile was launched towards waters off the coast of Japan in the East Sea and reportedly travelled around 450 km and at a maximum height of 60 km. This was the seventh North Korean missile test since March 2021. Pyongyang has tested missiles every year since 2003, with the exceptions of 2010, 2011, and 2018. No testing took place between March 2020 to March 2021, but this had less to do with strategic calculations, and more to do with the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2018, North Korea did not undertake missile tests due to overtures for engagement from South Korea and the US. However, the process of testing resumed upon Pyongyang realising that the US was not ready to forgo economic sanctions in the near future. Thus, in 2019, North Korea conducted 18 ballistic missile tests and one submarine-launched ballistic missile test. In 2020, it conducted 6 ballistic missile tests and 2 cruise missile tests.
Pyongyang’s missile tests are becoming increasingly more sophisticated in terms of diversification, range, payload, launching diversity, and maneuverability. North Korea claims that the SLBM tested on 19 October 2021 was “the world’s most powerful weapon.” In October 2019, Pyongyang launched an SLBM, Pukguksong-3, from an underwater platform, firing at a high angle in order to avoid the reconnaissance radars of enemy countries. The missile reached a high point of 910 km, while travelling around 450 km. If it had been launched at a standard trajectory (just around 500 km in height) it would have travelled a distance of around 1,900 km. Apart from the angle, launching it underwater or via a submarine also rendered it unique in terms of stealth, meaning the missile could easily reach closer to its targets. The recently tested SLBM also has similar advantages.
Past short-range missile tests have been explained as North Korean pushing to bring the US and South Korea to the negotiating table. However, Pyongyang’s long-range missile tests are seen as a demonstration of its interest in advancing technological development. This implies that North Korea is not keen to give them up. There has also been debate about which of the recent missile tests have violated UN resolutions. While understanding the range of motivations driving its behaviour is not easy, North Korea is certainly determined to maintain, and to improve, its nuclear and missile capabilities. From the North Korean perspective, the best possible scenario would involve negotiating sanctions relief with the US and the international community while also retaining its technological capabilities. In return, Pyongyang would promise its best and most responsible behaviour. In the second best scenario, North Korea may agree to partially roll back its nuclear and missile programmes in return for sanctions relief.
North Korean intent was made quite obvious by the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, as recently as last week. He asserted that the country would continue developing weapons for self-defence against enemies. In January 2021, at the 8th Party Congress of the Workers’ Party, Kim said that North Korea would develop more weapons and increase military capacity to counter threats from the US and South Korea.
North Korea’s interest in the possibility of talks with the US and South Korea, which it would like as soon as possible, is notable. This has motivated it to not conduct nuclear or inter-continental ballistic missile tests since late 2017. Through its other missile tests though, Pyongyang is signalling that further delays in negotiations might mean more advanced North Korean capabilities for the world to deal with.
North Korea’s continuous stream of missile tests have become so normalised that now, news of more tests seems almost mundane. The US, Japan, and South Korea issue routine statements, but there has been no follow-up action. Much attention is devoted to the technical details of these missile tests. We also need an articulation of more long-term analyses of North Korean intent as well as possible responses from the international community so these can be addressed urgently and proactively.
*Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, SIS, JNU, & Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.