North Korea claims that a failed launch on May 31 was an attempt to place what Pyongyang termed a “military reconnaissance satellite” into orbit. The satellite, known as Mallingyong-1, was carried by a Chollima-1 rocket. The launch vehicle failed in flight and impacted the Yellow Sea.
North Korea’s Intentions, Out in the Open
Because any test of a space launch vehicle (SLV) also tests ballistic missile capabilities, the United States, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and others consider the tests violations of numerous UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit and sanction North Korean missile development.
North Korean state media, quoting Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jung and other military officials, reports that Pyongyang will attempt another satellite launch operation as soon as possible. From North Korea’s perspective, now is a great time to continue the tests.
Developing a reconnaissance satellite capability is a longstanding military and intelligence priority for the Hermit Kingdom. Lacking capable friends and distrusted by even its ostensible allies, China and Russia, Pyongyang knows that its capabilities are most secure when it controls them.
North Korea first tried to place a satellite into orbit in 1998, and this was followed by a succession of attempts with varying degrees of success. SLV launches took a backseat starting in 2017 during the “fire and fury” period of U.S.-North Korea relations. At this time, Pyongyang turned to outwardly hostile rhetoric and tested ballistic and other offensive missiles. Up until this point, North Korea had generally argued its SLV launches were part of a non-military, peaceful use of space program. It even created a civilian space development agency with the acronym NADA to reinforce the ruse.
For the May launch, however, North Korea did not try to hide behind the already thin veneer for this launch. Pyongyang directly cited its need for a satellite capability to counter the U.S. “hostile policy.” This is North Korea’s term for the U.S. security umbrella in the region, including Washington’s alliances with South Korea and Japan. (It is not, as is often interpreted, a revelation of North Korea’s supposed need for security guarantees).
Further, North Korea needs to test its systems to have confidence in their reliability and credibility. Pyongyang adjusts its training and evaluation schedule and tunes these events to extract maximum political, propaganda, and coercive advantage.
A Change in Calculus by North Korea
2017 saw the North’s first ICBM test, which I have written about previously. It was a banner year in DPRK missile development that lasted until the putative pause surrounding two summits between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore and Hanoi.
I was one of two Department of Defense representatives at the Singapore Summit and supported the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs during the negotiations with North Korea.
After the summits, North Korea did not stop weapons development or even cease testing, but its rhetoric softened. Kim probably assessed that as long as he continued to publicly praise Trump, the latter would overlook DPRK weapons development. Pyongyang also likely concluded that as long as it did not oversee long-range ballistic missile launches, the United States would keep to its commitment at Singapore to cancel large-scale military exercises on the Korean Peninsula.
Recent events reinforce Pyongyang’s calculus. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, North Korea probably feels emboldened to engage in increasingly dangerous testing and evaluation of its systems. This is because Russia and China, two permanent members of the UN Security Council, are not inclined to join the rest of the world in punishing Pyongyang at the UN Security Council. In Moscow and Beijing’s cost/benefit analysis, it is not worth helping — or even being seen as helping — the United States and its allies versus North Korea. Creating trouble for the United States is its own reward for these nations. Meanwhile, the risk of the United States or South Korea taking independent action to punish North Korea remains low. China and Russia’s assessment of that threat is probably a critical driver in how much they are willing to enforce sanctions on North Korea.
No Golden Concession
North Korean missile tests over the last decade have set off emergency alert notifications and sirens in Japan and South Korea. In 2018, Pyongyang gloated about the Emergency Alert System in Hawaii sending a false alarm of an incoming DPRK attack during the height of tensions. The SLV launch in May set off similar alarms and sent South Korean and Japanese citizens running for cover.
That is why it is easy to forget that North Korea’s early foray into ballistic missile tests was once fodder for late night comedians. The idea that this country would develop a credible nuclear attack capability seemed farcical, particularly given its deteriorating conventional force. North Korea’s bizarre cult of personality and general weirdness do lend themselves to caricature.
It is critical to remember, however, that North Korea’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and associated delivery systems is a long-term objective. The effort is tied to Pyongyang’s ultimate goal: holding the U.S. homeland hostage to nuclear threats that Kim believes will end U.S. security guarantees to the Republic of Korea and coerce Seoul into a peace agreement on terms favorable to Pyongyang.
This analysis is as true today as when I wrote it for the Office of Secretary of Defense in the 2017 Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The United States and our allies must avoid the temptation to see the North Korea problem through a partisan domestic political lens. It is folly to believe that any American leader’s negotiating skills will convince North Korea to change the literal raison d’être of the regime. We must ignore the tendency to see North Korea’s testing and development as indicative of a failure to understand North Korea’s deep insecurities, or other such nonsense. There is no “golden concession”, as I call it, that will convince North Korea to change its ways.
North Korea sees an opening right now to test, evaluate, and refine its capabilities. It intends to take it.
Anthony W. Holmes was special advisor for North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2017-2021. He was one of two U.S. Department of Defense representatives at the Singapore Summit, the first between a sitting U.S. President and a sitting North Korean leader. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Project 2049. He lives in Florida.