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Get Ready: North Korea Testing ICBMs Is the New Normal

North Korea Hwasong-17 ICBM. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
North Korea Hwasong-17 ICBM. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

North Korea Just Tested Another ICBM: This Will Continue Indefinitely It is not surprising at all anymore that North Korea tests missiles. It launched another intercontinental ballistic missile in a test this weekend. And as usual, there is no obvious way for the rest of the world to stop them.

Sanctions can make it harder for Pyongyang to test even more than it already does. The problem would almost certainly be worse without them, but North Korea’s commitment to testing no matter how much it impoverishes its long-suffering people is clear.

An agreement with North Korea, in which it restrained its testing, would be ideal. But this has proven elusive for decades, and trust that the North Korean leadership will keep its word is low.

Missile defense is usually where this debate ends up. Ukraine and Israel have successfully used missile defense in recent years. But North Korea’s missiles will almost certainly be armed with nuclear weapons, which means missile defense must work perfectly to avert a disaster. That is obviously very unlikely.

Why ICBMs?

North Korea’s military threat to South Korea and other states turns almost completely to missiles now. The North Korean People’s Army is famously large; conscription applies to the whole country. But it is also backward. Its weapons date to the Cold War, and the closed, secretive country is unable to generate the modern technologies necessary to keep up with the South Korean military, much less that of its US ally. In a conventional military conflict, it is widely assumed North Korea would lose along the lines of Iraq’s defeats in its wars with the US in 1990 and 2003.

Barring the acquisition of nuclear weapons, these defense pressures almost certainly would have forced reform on the system, much the way Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform the Soviet Union due to Cold War competition with the US. But reform is all but out of the question for North Korea.

If it opens or liberalizes, then it will inevitably become more like South Korea, raising the question of why North Korea continues to exist at all. This is why decades of Chinese entreaties for North Korea to change as China has changed have been ignored.

Hence, North Korea must build nuclear weapons and put them on missiles. This is the only way to keep its opponents at bay while simultaneously retaining its grossly inefficient and brutally totalitarian domestic governance.

For years, those missiles were aimed primarily at South Korea and Japan (and China). But even more valuable is directly threatening the US. North Korea’s relentless drive for ICBMs means US military involvement in a Korean contingency could provoke a North Korean nuclear strike on the American homeland. That will give any US president pause before committing to South Korea.

This does not insure a North Korean victory in a war, but it does nearly eliminate the chance that the US or South Korea will ever strike North Korea first.

There is No Solution; This Will Go On and On

As noted above, there is no obvious solution to this problem. For many years, the US and its partners successfully delayed the problem. Sanctions, threats, and various efforts to talk to North Korea kicked the can down the road for a while. That is, North Korea’s nuclearization and missilization have been in sight since the 1990s. But outside powers were successfully able to cajole North Korea into going slow. Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un, signaled interest in a deal several times. Even after he crossed the nuclear threshold in 2006, he did not race to ever larger and better weapons.

The current Kim, though, has. He has significantly accelerated both the missile and nuclear programs. North Korean nuclear ICBMs are here to stay. Kim has made it clear that he will not give them up.

Our response options are poor. Sanctions mitigate the problem – i.e., they keep North Korea from building even more missiles and nukes – and should only be traded away for genuine concessions which can be verified. China is North Korea’s patron and could probably help. But the Sino-US relationship is strained, and one lost area of cooperation is reining in Pyongyang. Missile defense is better than nothing, but it does not work very well.

The emerging option is to match North Korea missile for missile, bomb for bomb, via South Korea’s own counter-nuclearization. This is risky. China’s response will be harsh. But it is not clear what else might convince the North Koreans to slow down. Nothing else has worked.

Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly ( is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

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Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.