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How to Prepare: North Korea Could Soon Test an ICBM or Nuclear Weapon

North Korean Test of Hwasong-15 ICBM. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
North Korean Test of Hwasong-15 ICBM. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

On March 10, 2022, the U.S. released a South Korea and Japan coordinated assessment of the last two North Korean missiles launches in February and March revealing that these were tests of components of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, with some reporting suggesting a full ICBM test is in the works. This may be a major inflection point for security on the Korean peninsula as well as North Korea’s ability to potentially attack the U.S. homeland. Despite Putin’s War raging in Ukraine, the U.S. and the international community must be prepared for the likely eventuality of at least an ICBM test if not also a possible nuclear test. To prepare courses of action policymakers and strategists must recognize and understand Kim Jong-un’s strategy.

Kim is facing severe domestic difficulties due to COVID mitigation measures, natural disasters, a failed economy due to poor central decision making by Kim Jong-un, and international sanctions. When faced with similar difficulties in the past, the regime has lashed out to “externalize” the threat and show the Korean people they must sacrifice to defend the regime from the hostile policies of the U.S. and South Korea. This could be one reason for the nine missile launches so far in 2022.

What is more likely is the recent actions of missile launches, new construction at the Pyunggye-ri nuclear test site, the regime’s announcement that it intends to launch satellites for reconnaissance purposes, and Kim’s visit to the Sohae launch facility are designed to support the dual focus regime strategy. The main effort is a political warfare strategy combined with blackmail diplomacy which uses tensions, threats, and provocations to gain political and economic concessions. The most important near-term concession for the regime is sanctions relief, at least partially. The second line of effort is development of advanced military and warfighting capabilities in support of the objective to ultimately dominate the Korean peninsula.

These two lines of effort are not divergent. They are mutually supporting and reinforcing  –meaning they work in concert with each other – and are ultimately focused on ensuring the survival of the regime through peninsula domination. This has been ongoing over the past three decades. However, this time may be different. Although there are concerns about policy failure, the current situation may provide an opportunity to interrupt the cycle of provocations depending on decisions made by Kim Jong-un and the ROK/U.S. alliance.

Kim’s current actions may be based on his assessment of his relationship with former President Trump. Specifically, Trump touted his Korea policy as a success because his relationship with Kim caused him to implement a self-imposed moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests after 2017. Despite some sixty missile and rocket launches from the failed Hanoi summit in 2019 until now, since there was not an ICBM or nuclear test Trump’s policy supposedly worked.

Kim may have assessed the U.S. political situation and determined that President Biden cannot afford a foreign policy challenge on the Korean peninsula. If he exerts enough pressure on the U.S. and the ROK he likely believes that at this point the ROK and U.S. will acquiesce and provide some form of sanctions relief in the hope that Kim Jong-un will allow negotiations to restart and not conduct any ICBM or nuclear tests.

He may also assess that the U.S is facing too many national security challenges from Putin’s War in Ukraine to negotiations with Iran to the South China Sea and threats to Taiwan. He is mistaken. Despite the U.S. global commitments, so far this year the U.S. has deployed F-35s to Okinawa, a bomber task force to Gaum, increased intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations in the West Sea along the coast of Korea, increased the readiness of missiles defenses in the region, and completed the rotation of a new armored brigade combat team to the peninsula. The U.S. can and will meet its global commitments and Kim Jong-un must see this.

It is possible that he has seriously miscalculated. The Biden administration policy not only relies on principled and practical diplomacy, strong alliances, and stern deterrence, but also the full implementation of all UN Security Council Resolutions. This last point should be interpreted to mean the Biden administration has no intention of providing sanctions relief until there is substantive and verifiable progress toward denuclearization. Despite the recommendations of pundits, there is no indication that the administration will provide any form of sanctions relief, and certainly not under duress.

North Korea Missiles

Image of Hwasong-12 IRBM. Image Credit: KCNA.

If Kim does not achieve his objectives, he may consider that he must test an ICBM or a nuclear weapon. He may believe he has no other choice because he has set the conditions to do so and to not do so would be a sign of weakness. His failure to achieve sanctions relief since 2017 has put him under intense internal pressure from the elite and the military. Continued failure could lead to catastrophic consequences from internal threats.

However, if he does test, he must understand that he will suffer severe external consequences in the form of what might be called a strategic strangulation campaign. Although there continue to be sanctions designations by the U.S. such as the ones announced on March 11, 2022, there has been insufficient enforcement and international support for sanctions (namely China and Russia) and the regime has become very adept at sanctions evasions activities. It has also used its extensive global illicit activities to offset losses from sanctions. There needs to be aggressive implementation and enforcement of all sanctions and a trilateral campaign to finally cut off the regime from outside support which allows the regime to survive.

Pundits also argue that such a campaign will harm the Korean people living in the north. They are already suffering in the most horrible conditions due to Kim’s deliberate policy decisions to prioritize nuclear weapons, missiles, advanced military capabilities, and supporting the elite over the welfare of the Korean people. While the ROK and U.S. are very much concerned for the people, policy makers should also realize the people’s tremendous resilience and how through use of foreign currency, smuggling, and market activity they have adapted in the face of a brutal government to survive.

Pundits may argue that it would be better to provide sanctions relief now to prevent an ICBM or nuclear test in the near term, illustrating an inability to understand the nature, objectives, and strategy of the Kim family regime. Any form of appeasing the regime – and that is what sanctions relief must be called – will lead Kim to assess his political warfare strategy and blackmail diplomacy a success. Even though he might allow negotiations to take place he will double down on his strategy. The ROK/U.S. alliance, the region, and the international community will still be faced with a dangerous threat from Kim Jong-un who will continue to make demands.

What the U.S., the ROK, and Japan must do is inform Kim that any test of an ICBM or nuclear weapon will result in the execution of a comprehensive strategic strangulation campaign that will cause Kim Jong-un to personally suffer on a scale he has never experienced. This will include not only the necessary sanctions enforcement – full and aggressive enforcement to include secondary sanctions on China and Russia for their complicity in supporting the regime. There will be a trilateral information and influence activities effort that will penetrate the regime’s information defenses and spread the truth throughout the population, and this will support a human rights upfront approach. The U.S. will lead an international effort to reinvigorate the Proliferation Security Initiative to shut down the regime’s illicit arms sales in conflict regions around the world. A cyber campaign must be focused on cyber defense and offense to take down the regime’s cyber organizations operating globally. Finally, the ROK/U.S. alliance and the Japan/U.S. alliance will undertake a wide-ranging effort to improve military capabilities, demonstrating to the regime that despite it having the fourth largest army in the world it will be rapidly destroyed in any scenario the north attempts to initiate. This is not an exhaustive list of the actions that should be considered. These actions should be publicly presented so that Kim Jong-un, the elite, the military, and the Korean people understand the consequences.

North Korea ICBM

North Korean Hwasong-16 ICBM. Image Credit: KCNA/North Korean State Media.

There is an off-ramp for Kim. The Biden Administration is completely sincere in offering to negotiate anywhere, anytime, and without pre-conditions. Kim can accept this offer and if he chooses to act as a responsible member of the international community and negotiate in good faith there can be a road ahead.

While ICBM and nuclear tests are serious actions the ROK/U.S. alliance cannot be intimidated by Kim’s threats. There is only one response to threats and that is by demonstrating strategic reassurance to allies and strategic resolve to defend national interests. There is only danger if the U.S. and alliance partners show weakness by trying to appease the mafia-like crime family cult known as the Kim family regime. We want peace but as President Raegan said we can only have peace through strength.

David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 20 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the editor of Small Wars Journal and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Written By

David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 30 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the Vice President of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy and the editor of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies and the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea).