North Korea reported a successful test of its new long-range cruise missile systems on Monday. North Korea’s new missiles are able to reach most of Japan, possessing a range that is several orders of magnitude larger than their older systems. The first missile test in six months, North Korea’s actions represent their commitment to a nuclear program despite attempts at negotiation from the U.S. over the past few years.
Because cruise missiles carry less powerful payloads than traditional ballistic missiles, U.N. Security Council sanctions do not explicitly forbid North Korea’s cruise missile tests. Nonetheless, U.S. Indo-Pacific command said it was monitoring the situation closely, saying that “This activity highlights [North Korea’s] continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats it poses to its neighbors and the international community.” Japan expressed “significant concerns” over the test, as Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato warned that North Korea’s actions “would jeopardize regional peace and security.” China, North Korea’s closest ally, did not comment on the missile launch but a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, encouraged “all parties involved to exercise restraint” and “actively engage in dialogue and contact” to reach a political settlement.
In 2019, then-President Trump embarked on a series of high-profile meetings with North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, aimed at reducing their nuclear capacity. But these talks quickly reached a stalemate. In August, the North was angered when the United States began joint military drills with South Korea, after previously scaling back these exercises to facilitate denuclearization talks. North Korea’s actions continue to heat up these tensions, increasing the risk of violent conflict.
But North Korea is unlikely to voluntarily surrender their nuclear program. One of the most isolated and heavily sanctioned countries in the world, North Korea has historically relied on China for support and protection. Kim Jong Un views nuclearization as a part of his “self-reliant” defense — a means of ensuring his regime’s survival regardless of international support. For this reason, North Korea’s diplomatic demands in exchange for denuclearization are strict, including removal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella around South Korea and Japan, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, and deterrence associations from the South. If the U.S. were to agree to these demands, we would be ensuring the security of a tyrannical regime, while potentially endangering allies if North Korea broke their word. An agreement would also cripple the ability of the U.S. to combat China in the region.
However, the situation has recently changed. During the Covid-19 pandemic, North Korea closed their border with China, further weakening their already miserable economy. As the U.S. and other countries have held firm on their sanctions on Pyongyang, the Brookings Institute reports that North Korea’s economy has shrunk by 15-20% in the past four years. There are signs that Kim Jong Un is growing desperate. This past year, in an uncharacteristic display, he directly acknowledged the economy’s failure, tightened state control and reorganized the bureaucracy. An anniversary parade last week featured healthcare workers in hazmat suits and local security forces, emphasizing domestic concerns instead of traditional militaristic displays.
As North Korea’s economy crumbles, the United States may have the upper hand at the negotiating table. Kim Jong Un is unlikely to accept full denuclearization, relying on North Korea’s small nuclear arsenal – in which the country has invested massive amounts of money over generations – to deter invasion. However, he may be more willing to dismantle current nuclear production sites and agree to ceasing missile tests. There are reasons to be optimistic about the North Korean situation. Monday’s launch might be a sign of desperation as Kim attempts to pressure countries into easing sanctions, in exchange for partial denuclearization.
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