SEOUL – New U.S. president, same old North Korean playbook. Almost.
Two months after President Joe Biden took office, North Korea is again turning to weapons tests to wrest outside concessions. But the tests so far have been relatively small compared to past launches. That indicates Washington has a window of engagement before North Korea pursues bigger provocations.
This week, North Korea’s neighbors reported the country fired four short-range missiles into the sea in its first missile launches in about a year. The launches — two on Sunday, two on Thursday — came after the North said it had rebuffed dialogue offers by the Biden administration, citing what it called U.S. hostility.
Here’s look at North Korea’s recent missile launches and their motives.
WHAT IS DIFFERENT ABOUT NORTH KOREA'S STRATEGY THIS TIME?
North Korea has a long history of performing major weapons tests around the time new governments take power in the United States and South Korea.
In February 2017, less than a month after Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, North Korea tested a mid-range missile that observers said showed an advance in weapon mobility. Later in 2017, four days after current South Korean President Moon Jae-in was inaugurated, North Korea fired what it called a newly developed, nuclear-capable intermediate-range missile.
In 2009, North Korea conducted a long-range rocket launch and a nuclear test within the first four months of the first term of the Obama administration.
This week’s weapons tests largely appear to follow that playbook, but experts believe the country held back from a more serious a provocation because the Biden administration is still evaluating its North Korea policy.
The four missiles fired this week were all short-range and don’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. mainland. According to South Korea’s assessment, the first two weapons launched Sunday were believed to be cruise missiles. But Japan said the two fired Thursday were ballistic missiles, more provocative weapons that North Korea is banned from testing by U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“The basic pattern isn’t much different. But while North Korea in the past focused on showing off its maximum capability when a new government came in the United States, I feel the North is trying to control the level of (its provocation),” said Du Hyeogn Cha, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
WHAT DOES NORTH KOREA WANT?
What it has always wanted: for “the United States to lift sanctions while letting it maintain its nuclear capability,” said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst for the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
Because the Biden administration is unlikely do that anytime soon, some experts say North Korea may stage bigger provocations, like a long-range missile test or a nuclear detonation.
For now, it is ramping up its rhetoric along with the short-range missile launches.
In January, about 10 days before Biden took office, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced he would enlarge his nuclear arsenal and beef up the country's fighting capability to cope with a hostile U.S. policy and military threats. He also pressed South Korea to suspend regular military drills with the United States if it wants better ties.
When U.S. and South Korean militaries pressed ahead with their springtime drills this month, Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, warned the U.S. to “refrain from causing a stink” if it wants to “sleep in peace” for the next four years.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Washington reached out to Pyongyang starting in mid-February, but Pyongyang hasn’t responded. Coupled with the overture, however, Blinken continued to slam North Korea’s human rights record and nuclear ambitions when he visited Seoul last week. North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said her country will keep ignoring such U.S. offers because of what she called American hostility.
The recent launches seem to be an example of North Korea “putting Kim Yo Jong’s threats into action as she said the United States can’t sleep in peace if it doesn’t accept its demands,” said Moon Seong Mook.
Experts say it’s highly unlikely for the Biden administration to back down and make concessions in the face of North Korea’s short-range missile launches. Biden, who has called Kim “a thug,” also isn't likely to sit down for one-on-one talks with Kim unless he gets a pledge that North Korea will denuclearize — and officials confirm the country is sincere.
Amid the standoff, North Korea could end up launching bigger weapons tests, especially if it isn’t satisfied with the Biden administration's North Korea policy review that is expected to be publicized soon, experts say.
“Biden won’t likely do a Trump-style ‘reality show summit’ with Kim. Kim’s agony in the next four years will be subsequently deepened and his nuclear gambling cannot help continuing,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at South Korea’s Korea University.
North Korea could turn to long-range missile and even nuclear tests, which Kim Jong Un suspended when he began engaging diplomatically with Washington. While Kim Jong Un has claimed to have achieved the ability to attack the U.S. homeland with nuclear missiles, outside experts said the North hasn’t mastered everything it would need to do that.
Such a major provocation would certainly prompt the United States and its allies to seek additional U.N. sanctions against North Korea.
But tougher sanctions may be difficult because of China, the North's major diplomatic ally and economic lifeline, wields veto power on the U.N. Security Council. Given its current tensions with Washington, China may not easily agree to more sanctions even if North Korea engages in long-range missile or nuclear tests, analyst Cha said.