Opinion | Why North Korea Is Testing Ballistic Missiles

You could be forgiven for forgetting about North Korea, which went quiet for a stretch, locked in self-imposed isolation for two years during the pandemic while U.S. attention diverted to other crises (like the perilous fate of Ukraine).

Now there’s been a burst of ballistic missile tests in the new year: seven in January alone — an unprecedented pace for Pyongyang — and two in the past few weeks, prompting the U.N. Security Council to huddle for emergency meetings and drawing condemnation from some members.

If it seems as if North Korea wants us to sit up and pay attention — Don’t forget, we’re still building missiles and nuclear weapons! — that’s certainly one of its objectives.

But these tests are about a lot more. This is a big year for North Korea. Mr. Kim is marking his 10th year in power. It’s also the 80th anniversary of his father’s birth and, on April 15, the 110th anniversary of his grandfather’s. The tests are to ensure that Kim Jong-un has fancy new hardware to show off to his people in a landmark year and, in the longer term, to gain more leverage in future nuclear negotiations.

Celebrations around this trifecta of milestones are all about glorifying the Kim family’s rule and legitimizing the reign of the young man who inherited power over this anachronistic, impoverished nation a decade ago. Weapons are central to that — and to Mr. Kim’s foreign-policy strategy.

Mr. Kim is often called “unpredictable,” and the record-breaking barrage of tests — the most recent taking place this month and featuring a powerful, new long-range missile, according to the United States — might seem to be evidence of that. But if you’ve watched him as long as I have, the patterns are clear. He’s not unpredictable; he’s ambitious.

When I landed in Pyongyang in January 2012, Kim Jong-il had just died, catapulting his youngest son, then in his 20s, to power. Snow blanketed the capital and icicles tinged the funeral wreaths lined up beneath the portrait of Kim Jong-il at the city’s main square. I was one of the first foreigners welcomed into Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, there to open the first full U.S. news bureau in Pyongyang (for The Associated Press). None of us, not even the North Koreans, had any idea what kind of leader he would be.

It was a strange, hastened mourning period. Behind their solemn masks, the North Koreans were antsy for change after 17 years of stifling military rule under his father. Their hopes for a different life under Mr. Kim — trumpeted as modern and technologically savvy — were palpable in those early months. I picked up on it in conversations with North Koreans behind closed doors.

The rest of the world, however, saw only a comic figure in Mr. Kim — a boy king with a goofy haircut. (Cue the movie “The Interview.”)

There’s nothing funny about him now. In his first 10 years, this 30-something millennial has tested four nuclear devices and more than 130 missiles — including an intercontinental ballistic missile that might be capable of reaching the White House. (His father tested 16 missiles during his 17 years in power.)

And he’s just getting started. If all goes well, Mr. Kim will rule for decades to come. We should brace ourselves.

Weapons and warfare have always been part of the Kim family formula. But Kim Jong-un has bigger sights than those of his father and grandfather. He calls North Korea’s nuclear capability a “treasured sword” — key to protecting his family’s rule and ensuring his country’s very existence.

For years, I had a front-row seat to the cult of personality created around him. I watched as North Koreans attended study sessions introducing him as a modern incarnation of his illustrious grandfather, the heir who would bring the economy into the 21st century.

Today Mr. Kim is using technology not only to modernize his analog nation but also to win the loyalty of millennials, his future power base, by enticing them with smartphones and tablets. He’s weaponizing the cybersphere to help build the weapons essential to his strategy of dazzling his people — who continue to go without food, medicine and heat as the leadership funnels the country’s limited resources into nuclear weapons — while terrorizing his foes.

The United Nations has tried for decades to use sanctions to stop the flow of money into North Korea’s weapons program. To get around them and spirit hard currency back to the country, the Kims have long relied on illicit moneymaking schemes.

Kim Jong-un deploys a modern spin: His elite cyberarmy is suspected of stealing more than $2 billion since 2014 — much of which is funding the nuclear program, according to U.N. experts.

Tests for that very nuclear program are what got President Donald Trump’s attention in 2017, setting off a volley of threats between the two men. Mr. Kim carried on testing — firing three intercontinental ballistic missiles and claiming to detonate a thermonuclear bomb — before turning to diplomacy in 2018 to negotiate a payoff in exchange for the promise of a nuclear accord.

Mr. Trump took the bait, seeing it as an opportunity for a foreign-policy victory. Historic summits and an unlikely bromance followed — but not a nuclear deal. So after Mr. Trump lost re-election in 2020, Mr. Kim retreated to focus on repairing his standing at home and to reassess his nuclear strategy.

That’s why he’s now returning to the family playbook of poking the bear to give himself a pretext to perfect his weapons.

Here’s how it works: North Korea tests ballistic missiles. The United States pushes the U.N. Security Council to condemn or impose sanctions on Pyongyang for carrying out banned activity. North Korea accuses Washington of hostility and claims it needs weapons for self-defense. Then North Korea carries out more tests, which help its scientists refine their ballistic missile technology.

While a familiar strategy, the recent spate is the most intense and provocative since 2017. In January last year, Mr. Kim called for building “ultramodern tactical nuclear weapons,” outlining a to-do list that includes hypersonic and submarine-launched weapons as well as military reconnaissance satellites — and a long-range ballistic missile capable of deploying multiple warheads. This January, Mr. Kim ordered “more thorough preparation for a long-term confrontation with the U.S. imperialists” and hinted that an intercontinental ballistic missile launch or nuclear test might be next. He appears to be gearing up for just that by testing elements for a new ICBM in late February and this month, visiting his west coast rocket launchpad and reportedly restoring underground tunnels at a nuclear test site.

Yet we’re not seeing the “fire and fury” from Washington that we saw under Mr. Trump. Part of that is a matter of priorities: The Biden administration is focused on Russia and Ukraine, as well as on China’s global ambitions.

But it’s also a show of restraint. Washington is refusing to take the bait from Pyongyang and be drawn into tensions that could raise the specter of war on the Korean Peninsula. Instead, the Biden administration continues to stress that it’s open to talks “with no preconditions.”

Mr. Kim has so far rebuffed the administration’s overtures. That should worry us, since his arsenal is growing.

Already, some in South Korea — which just elected a conservative who is hawkish on North Korea as its new president — are clamoring for their country’s own nuclear weapons, raising the prospect of a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia. In Japan, the testing has spurred calls to bolster defense and consider stronger strike capability.

There’s also the risk of North Korea selling its technology to other rogue nations. (Pyongyang has a long history of collaborating with allies in Africa and the Middle East.)

It may seem as if Mr. Kim doesn’t want to talk. But my experience tells me otherwise: The tests are intended to compel the United States to engage and ultimately to pay to keep him from using those weapons.

He’s just not in any hurry. Since he’s playing the long game, the United States must do the same if it wants to successfully confront Mr. Kim’s nuclear ambitions. That includes maintaining consistent, measured messaging — acknowledging the urgency around North Korea’s nuclear ambitions without handing Pyongyang ammunition by panicking at every provocation. Since North Korea likes to divide and conquer, Washington must find common ground with all of its neighbors — including China — to establish a united front around the shared concern over nuclear proliferation.

And Washington must work harder to address the expanding cyberthreat as part of its strategy to stop money from flowing into Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Seoul and Washington took a promising step at a summit last year where they pledged to collaborate on cyber issues.

We may have overlooked North Korea while Mr. Kim was quiet. The latest spate of tests should serve as an alert: It never pays to forget about North Korea.

Jean H. Lee (@newsjean) opened The Associated Press’s Pyongyang bureau in 2012 and made dozens of reporting trips to North Korea from 2008 to 2017. She is a co-host of the “Lazarus Heist” podcast from the BBC World Service and a senior fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington.

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