The Mystery of North Korea's Unidentified Flying Missiles

On August 10, for the fifth time in recent weeks, the DPRK tested a new series of missiles, which South Korea at first described as “unidentified projectiles”. Although US President Donald Trump has already stated that the DPRK hadn't violated the agreement signed by him and Kim Jong-un at the Singapore summit, such a gesture from the North Koreans is, in any case, defiant. It can both negatively affect the situation on the peninsula and accelerate the beginning of a dialogue to end the conflict, says Valdai Club expert Georgy Bulychev.

Not even a month has passed after the sudden and seemingly productive meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump in Panmunjom, but the situation has become unstable again. Although at that meeting both leaders agreed to continue the dialogue, the North Koreans are dragging their feet over the formation of their delegation and the negotiation date. The reasons for this delay may be purely technical (Mike Pompeo recently expressed hope that negotiations would begin “in the next two weeks”).

However, Pyongyang seems to be dissatisfied with the United States' starting requests and does not want to pursue a dialogue until they change. That is why the DPRK missile tests are being interpreted as a signal to the Americans. Kim Jong-un himself confirmed this, calling the launches a “warning”. The DPRK threatens that if the dialogue does not continue, the DPRK will take "a new path". What kind of path he intends remains unclear, but, for example, the deployment of nuclear submarines on combat alert would radically change the strategic balance.

The formal reason offered was that the United States and South Korea engaged in military exercises, limited in scope, which the DPRK condemned as a sign of “broken promises” and “undermined trust”. Although, most likely, the DPRK military has long needed trials to complete work on new complexes and put them into serviceSuch an assessment was recently offered by John Bolton. Trump wrote in his twitter, that "in a letter to me sent by Kim Jong Un, he stated, very nicely, that he would like to meet and start negotiations as soon as the joint U.S./South Korea joint exercise are over. It was a long letter, much of it complaining about the ridiculous and expensive exercises".

Despite all the controversy in the media, it is unclear what kind of missiles were tested in North Korea, named KN-23 (they have already been tagged as the “Kim Iskanders”). They seemed to resemble Russian Iskanders, but no more than Ukraine's “Grom” missiles or South Korea's “Hyunmoo” misslies (Russian experts think, that they cannot be called ballistic ones). It must be noted that on August 2 the North Koreans didn't test missiles; they tested a new, large-calibre rocket artillery system. On August 10, another similar system seems to have been tested.

As you know, “ballistic launches” were banned in the DPRK under UN Security Council resolution No. 1718 of 2006. Then, with the tacit agreement of Russia and China, the Americans managed to carry out this provision, although the resolution was adopted in response to nuclear rather than missile tests. In general, this wording allows us to declare any launch, be it a firework or ballistic test, as a violation of the resolution and, therefore, a reason for sanctions. On August 1 the Western powers initiated a UNSC closed-door meeting, but did not succeed, and not only because of China and Russia’s scepticism, but also the US reluctance to aggravate the situation.

According to reports, the KN-23 is not just a tactical short-range missile, but a guided one (experts call it a quasi-ballistic missile). The creation of such missiles represents a qualitative leap in North Korea's development - it has not only tactical, but also strategic importance. The fact is that such weapons are practically invulnerable to South Korean missile defence systems. Consequently, if it is necessary to launch nuclear, intercontinental missiles against the territory of the United States or other countries, the first thing that will happen is the launch of short-range missiles at South Korean missile defence facilities, which will disable them, dramatically increasing the DPRK’s ability to engage in unhindered launches. Therefore, the creation of these missiles is not in vain and is promoted in the DPRK as a major step towards improving defence capabilities, thereby strengthening Kim Jong-un's authority both among the armed forces and among the population. 

At the same time, we must admit that the North Koreans are trying to act carefully so as not to hit the sore spots of either the United States or South Korea, but simply to force them to reconsider their approaches to negotiations and to weaken the pressure of sanctions. In the end, the DPRK did not promise anyone it wouldn't create new weapons, or produce and test new missiles - Kim Jong-un’s obligations to Trump concerned two things: not to conduct nuclear tests and not to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles. In this case, Trump even indicated in response to the latest launches that they did not violate the agreements and the Americans soft-pedal the issue so as not to impede the dialogue.

South Koreans, like Trump, would not want tension to grow, although they caught between a rock and a hard place - on the one hand, this is the perseverance of the United States trying to tie them to its chariot, and on the other - the need to maintain a normal level of relations with the DPRK. However, Pyongyang seems to be disappointed already in the current South Korean leadership and made it clear publicly. North Koreans believe that it is not independent, so all good wishes for improving relations between the North and the South stumble upon a strict ban on the part of the United States. What is the point of communicating with a government that does not fulfil its own promises and cannot act on its own?

Therefore, South Korea is losing the role of mediator between the United States and North Korea, which President Moon Jae-in has successfully tried in the past and early this year. Among other things, this adds tension to the domestic political situation in South Korea. Moon’s policy toward Japan has failed, the policy toward US meets direct dictatorship and arm twisting. Seoul is interested in resuming US dialogue with the DPRK, where it can play the role of a “catalyst”.

Obviously, all these considerations were taken into account by Kim Jong-un, who gave the command to start tests. Let's see if his missiles reach their goals.

North Korea: Four Missile Launches in Two Weeks, but There Is No Need to Worry
Konstantin Asmolov
Pyongyang has demonstrated new types of weapons, which in a possible conflict on the peninsula could be perceived as a “game changer”, but its response to joint military exercises can be called symmetrical and not promise-breaking.
Expert Opinions
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.