North Korea has already conducted four test launches of ballistic missiles this year, but they could be a mere precursor to more serious provocations, as Kim Jong-un’s regime attempts to break the nuclear stalemate with the US.
Superficially, the recent tests were a reminder of the North’s ability to manufacture more sophisticated weapons – perhaps including those capable of evading missile defences – despite years of international sanctions.
But with every launch, North Korea also sends a carefully calibrated political message to the White House.
In 2017, it marked American independence day by firing a long-range missile, demonstrating its theoretic ability to strike the continental US. And after more than a year of inactivity, it communicated its displeasure at the failure of nuclear talks with a volley of short-range projectiles in spring 2019.
The messaging from Pyongyang has now taken on a more ominous tone. It began the this year with warnings from its leader that it would no longer be bound by its self-imposed 2018 moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.
On Thursday, it went a step further, with reports suggesting the North no longer sees a resumption of nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches as a provocation too far.
The country will bolster its defences against the US and consider restarting “all temporarily suspended activities”, the country’s official news agency, KCNA, said in an apparent reference to nuclear and ICBM tests.
The decision came after Kim called a meeting of the politburo of the ruling Korean Workers’ party on Wednesday to discuss “important policy issues”, including how to counter US “hostility”, and hours before the UN security council was due to meet to discuss the regime’s recent missile tests.
“We should make more thorough preparation for a long-term confrontation with the US imperialists,” the politburo said, according to KCNA.
Rhetoric aside, the growing sense of frustration in Pyongyang is palpable.
Under Joe Biden, the US has summarily rejected North Korean demands that Washington make concessions – an easing of sanctions, an end to joint military drills with South Korea and the removal of American strategic weapons from the Korean peninsula – to smooth the path to the resumption of denuclearisation talks.
Kim has spent the past 12 months applying pressure on Biden with a series of missile launches, while stopping short of provoking the US president with the testing of a nuclear device or ICBM.
But his caution has elicited only condemnation from the US and its allies and, last week, the first fresh sanctions – targeting five North Korean officials linked to the regime’s missile programme – of Biden’s first year in the White House.
We have yet to reach the “fire and fury” levels of 2017 but a return to dangerous brinkmanship looms larger as Kim – whose standing at home has been battered by the pandemic and a weak economy – again considers his nuclear playbook to apply pressure on the Biden administration, which has offered “talks without preconditions” but showed little enthusiasm for easing sanctions until Kim takes verifiable steps to dismantle his weapons programme.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said: “It is possible that the situation could go back to the vicious cycle of provocations and sanctions we saw in 2017.”
Yang added that the regime could possibly test a long-range missile or similarly powerful weapon to coincide with the 80th and 110th anniversaries of the birthdays of Kim’s late father and grandfather in February and April.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, urged the Biden administration to kickstart international efforts to restart nuclear talks that have been stalled since Kim’s failed summit with Trump in early 2019.
“The North Korean nuclear and missile problem has not disappeared and will only grow worse in the absence of active, serious diplomacy,” Kimball said.