While all eyes have been glued on the war in Ukraine, North Korea has been busy. Kim Jong-un’s weapons scientists have test-launched 31 ballistic missiles so far this year compared with 25 in all of 2019, which was a record-setter up till then. On June 5 alone, they fired eight short-range missiles, all successfully, in the space of a mere 35 minutes. They also seem to be preparing to detonate a nuclear bomb, which would break a four-year moratorium that they’ve observed on testing nukes.
Yet at the same time, North Korea is in the throes of a COVID crisis, with no vaccines or mask mandates to counter it. Its closed-border policy of the past two years—put in place to prevent an outbreak—has triggered a food shortage. And at a party conclave last week, Kim reshuffled his national-security team, suggesting…well, it’s not clear what. But one possibility is that it signaled a renewed appetite for negotiations and possible desire for international assistance, even if some of his fiery rhetoric suggested otherwise.
Some have seen Kim’s activities—the surge in missile tests, the possible revival of nuclear tests, the possible gambit for more aid—as a response to our own activities or as a dramatic way of seeking attention. But more likely, it’s just Kim being Kim, tossing up his mix of aggressive actions and appeals for help, with the implicit threat that if he doesn’t get help, he’ll behave more aggressively still.
Back in January 2021, at the 8th Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party, Kim laid out a policy of retrenchment—an end to his experiments with reform, the re-ascension of politics over economics, and the re-assertion of power to meet power. Key to this agenda was an elaborate list of new weapons systems, including nuclear weapons.
Since then, his weapons scientists have been going down the list, ticking off every project. This started before Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. While the public rollout of this effort coincided with the defeat of Donald Trump, who saw Kim in an absurdly rosy light, a 2020 United Nations report concluded that Kim continued his missile activity, without any slowdown, during Trump’s term. Daniel Sneider, lecturer of East Asian Studies at Stanford University, told me, “There hasn’t been a shift.”
The war in Ukraine may have affected Kim’s actions in one sense. The intensifying hostility between the U.S. and Russia, as well as the continued chill with China, has widened his latitude. In May, both Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have levied more sanctions against North Korea for a recent missile test. Both of Kim’s main allies have long been ambivalent about his aggressive actions, but they’re fine with more missile tests if they deepen the insecurity of the U.S. and our allies in the region. (Will their attitudes shift if North Korea resumes testing nuclear bombs? The answer, Sneider says, will tell us “whether Russia and China are still responsible nuclear powers.”)
None of this much alters North Korea’s ability to attack the United States. They have tested six intercontinental ballistic missiles this year—not enough for the missiles to be reliable by American standards, but if Kim’s goal is simply to deter the U.S. from invading North Korea, he probably has enough.
However, he has been testing a lot more short-range missiles—which could hit South Korea, Japan, and U.S. military bases in the region—and the newer models, which are propelled by solid fuel, are more accurate and reliable. Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, finds the pace and sophistication of these new weapons “a little alarming,” as they suggest Kim may seem them not merely as deterrents but as weapons he might someday use.
Lewis’ colleague, Joshua Pollack, says they might be accelerating the program as a sign of “sincere paranoia”—to “show that North Korea isn’t weak, so ‘don’t mess with us.’”*
Either way, the possibility of mutual miscalculation is concerning. Almost immediately after North Korea rapidly test-fired eight short-range ballistic missiles earlier this month, the U.S. and South Korea responded by firing eight short-range ballistic missiles of their own even more rapidly—in the space of 10 minutes—in what a U.S. diplomat in Seoul called a “swift and forceful response.” Most of us may have let North Korea drift from our minds, but those in charge of monitoring all threats are watching carefully and acting promptly.
In this sense, North Korea’s stepped-up aggressiveness may be a separate miscalculation. In part as a response to these moves, South Korea’s conservative party was returned to power in elections last month. While the previous president, Moon Jae-in, was desperate for détente with the north at almost any price, the new president, Yoon Suk Yol, has no interest in reviving talks—and is much more keen to solidify South Korea’s alliance with the United States.
One day before North Korea’s eight-missile-test day, the U.S. and South Korea held a joint naval exercise for the first time since Trump canceled them back in 2018. The exercise took place near Okinawa, Japan, quite a distance from North Korea; the missile tests had to have been planned well before then, so couldn’t be seen as a reaction. Still, Kim and his advisers—who worked hard to sever ties between Washington and Seoul while Trump and Moon were in office—surely took notice.
“For the first time, maybe ever, South Korea is viewing the region’s politics in global terms,” Sneider told me. Its leaders—and also Japan’s, who are also shaken by the geopolitical shifts—will attend NATO’s summit at the end of the month. This will be the first time that America’s European and Asian allies have met together in a security meeting. In this sense, Russia’s and China’s tolerance—even encouragement—of Kim’s hijinks may have been a miscalculation as well.
Even so, there is at least one intriguingly hopeful sign. At a party conclave last week, Kim overhauled his national-security team, naming Choe Son Hui as his foreign minister. Cho is seen as an America specialist; she has taken part in negotiations with the U.S. and other Western nations before. This could be a sign that Kim is interested in reviving negotiations.
However, Kim also said at the party congress a year-and-a-half ago that North Korea would need nuclear weapons “as long as there is imperialism on this planet,” and he deemed the U.S. as “the biggest enemy” to “the development of our revolution.”
A State Department spokesman said last month, on the eve of Biden’s trip to Asia, that the president remains “open to dialogue” with North Korea “without preconditions” as long as the talks were serious. However, U.S. officials have also said the goal of serious talks must be “complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament.” If Biden is still serious about that, and if Kim still believes he needs nukes as long as imperialism (meaning the United States) is on this planet, then talks seem rather futile. Maybe one side or the other can budge, but it’s not clear what would budge them—especially as long as Washington is still enmeshed in a neo-cold war with both Russia and China.
When Biden took office a year-and-a-half ago, he thought that he could leave behind the ancient squabbles of the Middle East, restore U.S. ties with a peaceful Europe, and focus—to the extent foreign policy needed focus—on the new “Indo-Pacific” alliance with Japan, Australia, and India. He didn’t anticipate the biggest war in Europe since 1945, Afghanistan’s return to the dark ages, Iran’s renewed effort to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels—and now the resumption of what looks like North Korea’s nuclear quest.
Presidents can try to set their agenda, but the rest of the world—and the world right now is particularly unruly—gets a vote.
Correction, June 21, 2022: This post originally misidentified Joshua Pollack as Jonathan Pollack. It also misquoted him as saying Kim Jong-un may be suffering “stress paranoia” rather than “sincere paranoia.”