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How to Respond to North Korea’s ICBM Test

North Korean ICBM
North Korea ICBM. Image Credit: DPRK State Media.

North Korea’s ICBM Launch: A Response to Kim’s Miscalculation – On March 24, North Korea possibly tested its new Hwasong-17 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Kim Jong-un broke part of his self-imposed moratorium on ICBM (and nuclear) tests that he promised the former U.S. president and the outgoing South Korean president in 2018. Kim must be made to understand he has miscalculated. The ROK/U.S. alliance must execute a new strategy.

The timing for this is not unusual and Kim’s action was not unexpected. On the same day, the U.S. president attended an emergency NATO meeting to discuss responses to Putin’s War in Ukraine. In South Korea, a contentious presidential transition is underway. North Korea is under enormous pressure from its failed economy, COVID mitigation measures, natural disasters, and sanctions. In addition, there are ongoing political, economic, and security challenges with the revisionist (China and Russia) and rogue (Iran and North Korea) powers around the world. North Korea is consumed with domestic problems and the U.S. is distracted by global challenges.

The Biden Administration has called for negotiations with North Korea anytime, anywhere, and without preconditions. Kim Jong-un has refused and likely demands one condition to allow his negotiators to come to the table: sanctions relief.

ICBM Test: Why Is North Korea Doing this Now? 

There are likely four reasons for the ICBM test. The first and most obvious is that Kim does not want to be neglected by the U.S. and international community and he wants to be a spoiler in strategic competition. Next, he needs to externalize the threat to justify the sacrifices the Korean people must make to protect the regime. Third, but most likely short-term reason, is to extort sanctions relief. Lastly and most important, Kim continues to pursue advanced warfighting capabilities that will someday allow him to dominate the Korean peninsula by force.

Kim is executing a political warfare strategy and blackmail diplomacy by using increased tensions through missile and ICBM tests, threats, and provocations to gain political and economic concessions. At the same time, he is developing advanced military capabilities that will allow him to use force if necessary to achieve his long-term objective which is to dominate the Korean peninsula under the rule of the Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State. North Korea is executing a hostile policy.

How Should the U.S. ROK Alliance Respond to the ICBM Test? 

Now is not the time to go wobbly especially when there will be calls to give Kim whatever is necessary to prevent future ICBM tests, especially a nuclear one. It is time to make Kim understand his miscalculation and for him to feel the consequences.

There are three immediate actions the ROK/U.S. alliance should take. First to understand Kim’s strategy and develop an alliance strategy based on such understanding. Second, is do not give in to Kim’s demands. If any concession is made Kim will assess it as a success and continue to execute his time-worn strategy. The third is to execute an information-based diplomatic strategy based on a foundation of strong defensive and offensive capabilities of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command. These will not prevent another provocation, ICBM, or nuclear test, but they will take the necessary long-term coherent approach.

Dr. Su Mi Terry published a very timely essay in Foreign Affairs, North Korea’s Nuclear Opportunism – Why Kim Jong Un Chose to Exploit the Ukraine Crisis that coincided with the ICBM test. In it, she explains the least bad option for the alliance has its roots in the Cold War Strategy. She recognizes that this requires a long-term approach.

There are three strategy proposals that should form the basis for new policy and strategy. The first is Frederick Vincenzo’s An Information-Based Strategy to Reduce North Korea’s Increasing Threat. The intent of this proposal is “to develop an information campaign designed to reduce the risks of conflict or regime collapse by convincing regime elites that their best options in these circumstances would be to support ROK-U.S. Alliance efforts.” In sort put pressure on the elites and second tier leadership.

Dr. Jien Baek of Harvard’s Belfer Center wrote A Policy of Public Diplomacy with North Korea. She describes it as “a principled and pragmatic approach to promote human rights and pursue denuclearization.” The alliance must execute a human rights upfront approach even as it pursues denuclearization. The key tool is information.

The third contribution is a monograph from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Maximum Pressure 2.0: A Plan for North Korea. Together with Terry, Vincenzo, and Baek it provides a comprehensive strategy that focuses on the long-term security problem on the Korean peninsula, the threat posed by the Kim family regime using five concepts integrating all the elements of national power.

A Strategy of Clear Focus

There are several areas on which the alliance must focus. To summarize:

The first is influence operations. Information is an existential threat to the regime. This is how we pressure the elite, the military, and separate the regime from the elite and the Korean people in the north. This is because Kim Jong-un fears the Korean people more than he fears the ROK and U.S. military threat and more than he fears sanctions. We have the opportunity to now embark on a comprehensive information and influence activities campaign with the election of President-elect Yoon. He is likely to undo the ROK moratorium on (and laws against) information transmission into North Korea. It is time to stop paying lip service to information and develop a true influence strategy to support ROK and U.S. national interests on the Korean peninsula.

We need to not only go against the regime’s “all-purpose sword” (cyber) but aggressively employ cyber capabilities to hinder missile and nuclear develop, erode the regime’s ability to use cyber-enabled economic warfare and illicit cyber activities to continue to fund the regime’s royal court economy, and to support information and influence activities.

We also need to reinvigorate the Proliferation Security Initiative and conduct interdicting operations against North Korea shipping that is proliferating weapons to conflict zones around the world.

We also need to prevent the ship-to-ship transfer of sanctioned goods (primarily coal and oil) in international waters that support the regime’s sanctions evasion activities.

We need to take readiness exercises off the negotiating table. They cannot be used as a bargaining chip. We must understand that Kim does not view canceling exercises as a concession to his security need. he wants exercises canceled for two reasons: To drive a wedge in the ROK/U.S. alliance and to weaken military readiness, primarily U.S. military readiness to make the stationing of U.S. troops on the peninsula untenable (do not be duped by Kim Jong-un’s words to the former Secretary of State that he says the U.S. troop presence protects Korea from China and therefore he does not want their removal – this is regime political warfare).

As part of this strategy, the Alliance must take a human rights upfront approach because human rights are not only a moral imperative but are also a national security issue. Kim Jong-un denies the human rights of the Korean people living in the North so that he can remain in power. Human rights cannot be sacrificed for the pursuit of denuclearization negotiations. We should also remember that when we talk about the north’s nuclear program it reinforces regime legitimacy. However, we expose human rights abuses and crimes against humanity and inform the Korean people in the North about their basic human rights it is an existential threat to the regime. This is a necessary line of effort as part of an information and influence campaign.

The bottom line is a new strategy must be built on deterrence, defense, denuclearization, and resolution of the “Korea question” (para 60 of the Armistice Agreement) by employing a superior form of political warfare. It should consist of 5 lines of effort: comprehensive diplomacy, resolute alliance military strength, pressure through enforced sanctions, cyber defense and offensive operations and information and influence activities to target the regime elite, the second-tier leadership, and the population to undermine the legitimacy of the regime and separate the Kim family regime from the elite and the 2d tier leadership as well as to prepare the population for unification.

The above outlines a political-diplomatic strategy, but a political one alone will not defeat the Kim family regime’s political warfare strategy. We need a superior form of political warfare.

While such a pressure campaign will be criticized by those who believe Kim needs only security guarantees, removal of the alliance threat, and sanctions relief. However, there is an off ramp for Kim at every turn. All he must do is change his behavior and act as a responsible member of the international community and comply with sanctions.

A wise Korean hand once said that just about everything that could be tried with North Korea has been tried and all we can do is keep repackaging previous actions in new ways to try to achieve progress.

Therefore, we need to thoroughly assess the nature, objectives, and strategy of the Kim family regime. and then develop a new strategy that will result in a new acceptable, durable political arrangement that will protect, serve, and advance U.S. and ROK/U.S. alliance interests.

The Time for a New Strategy Is Now 

With the election of Yoon in South Korea, a key initial effort of the Biden administration should be a thorough review of alliance policies and strategies with a focus on assessing the fundamental assumptions upon which ROK and U.S. policies and strategies are based. The Moon Administration has been laboring under the erroneous assumption that Kim Jong-un supports President Moon’s vision of peace and reconciliation and that there can be north-South engagement on reciprocal terms. A thorough analysis and understanding of the Kim family regime will reveal the Kim family regimes’ strategy is to use political warfare to subvert the South Korean nation and when conditions are right to use force to unify the peninsula under northern rule. Basing policy and strategy on the Moon administration’s assumptions is the path to failure on the Korean peninsula. Biden and Yoon have an opportunity to get on the right path together.

We need to return to fundamentals and answer these questions:

  1. What do we want to achieve in Korea?
  2. What is the acceptable durable political arrangement that will protect, serve, and advance U.S. and ROK/U.S? Alliance interests on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia?
  3. Who does Kim fear more: The U.S. or the Korean people in the north? (Note it is the Korean people armed with information knowledge of life in South Korea)
  4. Do we believe that Kim Jong-un has abandoned the seven decades-old strategy of subversion, coercion-extortion (blackmail diplomacy), and use of force to achieve unification dominated by the Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State to ensure the survival of the mafia-like crime family cult known as Kim family regime?
  5. In support of that strategy do we believe that Kim Jong-un has abandoned the objective to split the ROK/U.S. Alliance and get U.S. forces off the peninsula? Has KJU given up his divide to conquer strategy – divide the alliance to conquer the ROK?

The answers to these questions should guide us to the strategy to solve the “Korea question” (para 60 of the Armistice) and lead to the only acceptable durable political arrangement: A secure, stable, economically vibrant, non-nuclear Korean peninsula unified under a liberal constitutional form of government with respect for individual liberty, the rule of law, and human rights, determined by the Korean people. In short, a United Republic of Korea (UROK).

Again, there is no silver bullet to the North Korea problem. Therefore, we need to focus on the long-term solution to the security and prosperity challenges on the Korean peninsula. That is to focus on resolving the Korean question, e.g., “the unnatural division of the peninsula.” Solve that and the nuclear issues and the human rights abuses and crimes against humanity will be fixed. The question to ask is not what worked and what did not, but whether our actions advance our interests and moved us closer to the acceptable, durable political arrangement that will protect, serve, and advance U.S. and ROK/U.S. alliance interests?

We should never forget these two points:

  1. The root of all problems in Korea is the existence of the mafia-like crime family cult known as the Kim family regime that has the objective of dominating the Korean Peninsula under the rule of the Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State.
  2. The only way we are going to see an end to the nuclear program and military threats as well as the human rights abuses and crimes against humanity being committed against the Korean people living in the North by the mafia-like crime family cult known as the Kim family regime is through achievement of unification and the establishment of a United Republic of Korea that is secure and stable, non-nuclear, economically vibrant, and unified under a liberal constitutional form of government based on individual liberty, rule of law, and human rights as determined by the Korean people. In short, a United Republic of Korea (UROK).

In conclusion, this strategy will show Kim he has miscalculated. After this ICBM launch, it must be made clear that he will never receive a single concession in response to blackmail diplomacy. This may be the major inflection point on the peninsula. He is likely to test ICBMs again but if this strategy is consistently applied, he will conclude that he cannot be successful. At that point his only option will be to act as a responsible member of the international community or suffer the ultimate leadership failure. This strategy will exert real pressure on the regime unlike any before. Sanctions are useful and important but insufficient. Deterrence is critical to preventing war but does not provide sufficient pressure. A holistic integrated approach is required. It must be based on what threatens Kim the most, information.

It is time to take an information-based approach to the Korean question.

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 is a senior fellow at FDD. He is a 30-year veteran of the United States Army, retiring in 2011 as a Special Forces Colonel with his final assignment serving on the military faculty teaching national security strategy at the National War College.



  1. Commentar

    March 28, 2022 at 12:31 pm

    In this world, especially in the east asia world, the king of blackmail is also the queen of seduction, meaning the US is solely responsible for all the problems that beset the korea peninsula.

    Blackmail + seduction = lack of peace.And trouble at every turn.

    To have peace and leave all troubles behind, east asia needs to KICK OUT the US and become master of its own house.

    Unfortunately, the US has elected or self-appointed itself as the tribal chief of the region and through blackmail seduction forced so many to lick its boots and kiss its behind.

    North korea has chosen to show the finger at the US instead of kissing the awesome american arse and therefore please leave it alone unless washington wants to ignite ww3 in east asia.

  2. Jacky

    March 28, 2022 at 3:13 pm

    Biden is just as bad as the worst badass american presidents like warmongers bush and clinton, so he’s of no use to solve any problems in korea.

    To solve problems like ‘ICBMs’ and nuke tests, america needs to exit south korea pronto.

    Korea issue or problem was started by americans (just like ukraine war) with douglas macarthur and his right-hand man or sidekick john hodge riding roughshot over korean people.

    Hodge used jap police and jap officials to control them because it was thought korean people were useless and unfit to be of any use to the glorious american military occupation.

    American military continued to remain in korea even after the soviet red army left korea in 1948, with US soldiers often used to quell local street protests, often with bloody results.

    Thus, it is clear where US goes, trouble follows, therefore US must leave korea ASAP !

  3. Slack

    March 28, 2022 at 5:04 pm

    US must not be allowed to exploit asians in order to preserve its illegal hegemony in asia.

    US has exploited ukraine to fight its proxy war against russia, and now it wants to start a new round of confrontation and conflict in asia.

    Well, kim jong-un is assuredly determined to throw a wrench in the US plan for conflict. His weapons may not affect america directly, but he could sell his weapons secrets to other nations.

    Thus before barging forward, US needs to carefully consider the resulting consequences which could bring thundering defeat upon washington’s plans to control the world.

  4. larry darnell

    March 28, 2022 at 9:19 pm

    There is a fourth immediate action the ROK/U.S. alliance should take: give NK 5 hours warning, lay waste to its nuclear/missile program.

  5. korkinovova

    March 29, 2022 at 7:46 am

    Remember the gunpowder story. In the same scenario, nuclear weapons are spreading. The process ultimately cannot be stopped. Technology will appear, and a nuclear bomb will appear. The only question is when?

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