North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles – possibly its solid-fueled KN-23, which it tested multiple times in 2019 – on Thursday, 25 March. The test launches, the first since US President Joe Biden entered office, followed statements from Pyongyang in opposition to recent joint exercises between the US and South Korea and the recent 2+2 meeting between the US Secretaries of State and Defense with their South Korean counterparts. Thursday’s launches are consistent with a pattern of testing early in a US presidential administration; North Korea conducted tests weeks after former president Barack Obama’s inaugurations in 2009 and 2013 and Donald Trump’s in 2017. The tests also coincide with the end of North Korea’s winter training cycle. With Pyongyang’s reportedly rejecting requests for dialogue from the Biden administration, North Korea is likely using these tests to extract concessions before returning to the negotiating table. Past precedent suggests that more demonstrations are likely.
What is less clear is how the US and its allies will react to the latest launches. Although South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration expressed its “deep concern” about the missiles, Moon will likely respond to the tests by working harder to convince the Biden administration to participate in open dialogue with Pyongyang. Moon’s political window of opportunity may be closing. His administration is battling the widening land speculation scandal that has discredited his government’s efforts to curb rising housing costs – a critical issue for his political base – and increased the likelihood that Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) could suffer defeats in mayoral elections in Seoul and Busan on 7 April.
The Biden administration, however, may be reluctant to offer the concessions North Korea is presumed to be seeking ahead of negotiations. These concessions possibly include the proposal from the 2019 Hanoi summit in which North Korea was reportedly seeking relief from post-2016 UN Security Council sanctions mainly on exports of coal, iron, and other minerals and imports of petroleum. The Biden administration has not ruled out any options as it conducts its North Korean policy review. In his press conference on Thursday, Biden said diplomacy was possible but it would have to be “conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.” In practice, however, offering North Korea sanctions relief could be a heavy lift domestically, as it would face vocal criticism from Republicans, who will likely revert to a hawkish approach to North Korea now that they are back in opposition. The Japanese government is also likely to argue against sanctions relief as a precondition for negotiations. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga referred to Thursday’s launch as a threat to Japan’s and the region’s peace and security and being in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions. The prime minister will presumably urge Biden to maintain pressure on Pyongyang when he visits Washington in early April.
The most significant question now is whether and how North Korea escalates its weapons demonstrations. Pyongyang could opt for additional short- and medium-range ballistic missile tests, continuing the pattern dating back to 2019. But it is also possible that it could test launch a sea-launched ballistic missile from a submarine or the new large intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) it unveiled at a military parade in 2020. If North Korea were to test an ICBM – or a nuclear weapon – it would set back diplomacy for months.