Over the last several weeks, North Korea has launched an unprecedented number of missile tests. In one week alone in early November, North Korea launched over 80 missiles, including short and long range ballistic missiles.
In this episode, we speak to Kelsey Davenport, Director of Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, to put these tests in context of geopolitics, what kinds of technologies that North Korea is testing, and what these missile tests suggest about North Korea’s nuclear strategies and intentions?
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Transcript lightly edited for clarity
Why is North Korea Launching So Many Missile Tests?
Kelsey Davenport [00:00:00] There is really a significant chance of miscalculation resulting in this spiral escalating to conflict and that that conflict could indeed go nuclear. North Korea is engaged right now in an unprecedented spate of missile testing and there appears to be several factors driving North Korea’s actions right now. First, during this time of year when United States and South Korea are engaged in military exercises, there generally is response from North Korea, its own exercises, its own missile tests. So, to a certain extent, some of these tests are expected but what we’ve seen this year really surpasses the extent to which North Korea has responded to military exercises in the past. And it appears right now that North Korea is also trying to further develop its missile program to meet a second nuclear objective for its nuclear deterrent, that North Korea wants to be able to repel any U.S. or South Korean or joint invasion in the event of deterrence failing. And that’s why we’re seeing North Korea often launch a barrage of missiles focusing on shorter range systems that are really more designed to meet those repellants objectives. Then on top of that, on top of the regular responses to the exercises, on top of refining its nuclear capabilities to meet these deterrence objectives, I think North Korea and South Korea are engaged in an escalating battle of rhetoric right now and engaged a bit in their own missile race. So, at one point this month, we saw North Korea test more ballistic missiles in a single day than it ever has in its history. And that was really designed to try to demonstrate what a nuclear attack from North Korea would look like, to show the United States and South Korea the extent to which North Korea is prepared to use its nuclear weapons to defend itself, the extent to which it’s going to be able to respond to an attack. So, there are a number of competing objectives here that have really spurred this unprecedented testing and really are exacerbating tensions in the region right now.
What is North Korea’s current nuclear strategy?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:22] And so these specific technologies that are being tested, as you said, suggest to you certain strategic objectives, right?
Kelsey Davenport [00:04:33] Yes, certainly. And, you know, I mentioned the shorter-range systems that these are designed really to try to meet the objective of repelling a South Korean attack, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that North Korea also tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that has never been seen before. The test doesn’t appear to have been a complete success, but the design of this missile was different than the ICBMs we’ve seen North Korea test in the past. And, you know, it could be that this system was designed to allow North Korea to deliver multiple payloads, meaning it may be able to put more than one warhead on a single missile. So even though a lot of focus right now is on these shorter-range systems, North Korea’s also looking at long range systems. And North Korea has also said that it’s tested several cruise missiles during this more recent barrage of tests. Now, some of the cruise missiles it claims to have launched, South Korea did not detect. So, it’s unclear the veracity of these claims from Pyongyang. But if North Korea is testing cruise missiles, that could be indicative of Pyongyang being willing to take greater risk with these tests because cruise missiles, unlike ballistic missiles, they don’t have a set trajectory. Cruise missiles, they can be kind of navigated in flight. So, when you’re testing a cruise missile, there is a risk that it will go off course and, in a region, where the Korean Peninsula is, everything is quite close quarters and North Korea is taking a risk by testing systems that could deviate from the intended flight plan. So, there are a range of systems being tested right now that really will advance North Korea’s nuclear deterrent as it kind of masters and further tests these new missile capabilities.
Will North Korea do a nuclear test?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:33] So North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon six times from 2006 to 2017. Does this flurry of missile tests suggest to you that what we’re seeing is perhaps a prelude to the big one, a seventh nuclear test in the coming weeks or days or months?
Kelsey Davenport [00:07:00] Well, I will admit I’ve learned my lesson on trying to predict when North Korea will conduct nuclear tests in the past. It’s quite challenging to read the signs and recognize when North Korea might test, because, again, there are a range of factors that go into Pyongyang’s decision making. I mean, of course, there are some of the external dynamics that can lead to testing, but Pyongyang pays a significant price for conducting a nuclear test, so it’s going to want to achieve certain technical objectives whenever it tests. So, when North Korea, for instance, is looking at trying to build smaller, lighter warheads, it’s going to choose the testing time when it’s technically ready to try out those objectives. I also think that when we’re thinking about North Korea’s nuclear tests and when we’re assessing what those tests mean for North Korea, we also have to consider the broader context of how North Korea is characterizing its nuclear program and the direction that it trying to take its nuclear deterrent in, again, to try to determine what those technical objectives might be that really are driving the tests. Because even though I think there is sometimes a perception in the media that North Korea tests to get attention, to remind the world that it has nuclear weapons, we can’t lose sight of the fact that North Korea is trying to advance a nuclear program to meet certain security goals. And given the costs that it does pay for these nuclear tests, it’s going to try to use them to advance those goals and meet those technical objectives.
Are sanctions effective in reducing North Korea’s missile tests?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:49] One thing that this recent flurry of missile tests seems to have exposed is that the sanctions regime doesn’t seem to be terribly effective. Presumably if they’re able to test all these weapons that are composed of sanctioned material, they probably have a lot to spare. And they seem to be burning through a lot right now. Is that an assessment you share? And if so, why are these sanctions not cutting off supply of this technology, this kind of material, to North Korea?
Kelsey Davenport [00:09:24] Well, I think there are several factors that limit the effectiveness of sanctions. First, North Korea has managed to domesticate significant portions of the technological processes and the technologies that are necessary to build ballistic missiles, so it doesn’t rely on imports to the same extent that it did in the past just due to its domestic advances. Also, North Korea has been subject to these sanctions for decades. Sanctions are generally most effective for changing a state’s policies and actions within the first few years. Clearly, that hasn’t been the case with North Korea and as time passes, North Korea has managed to build up some very sophisticated networks to evade sanctions and to allow it to procure some of the materials that it cannot produce domestically. And also, I think that now we’re seeing a shift away from the unity that the international community had in responding to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests for a long time. I mean, North Korea’s missile tests happen so often, right now, people often don’t remember that these tests are actually prohibited by U.N. Security Council resolutions. They’re a violation of international law. But the Security Council has failed to take any meaningful action against these tests over the past year or so, because Russia and China have opposed imposing additional sanctions against North Korea. They actually favor a different diplomatic approach lifting certain sanctions or lifting caps on certain North Korean imports and exports to try to entice Pyongyang back to negotiations. So, the lack of international unity right now also plays into North Korea’s willingness and ability to evade sanctions. Also, I think it’s important to keep in mind that sanctions can be a very effective tool of statecraft, but states have to believe that if they engage in diplomacy, those sanctions will be lifted. And I think Kim Jong un’s experience trying to negotiate with the Trump administration raised concerns about the United States’ willingness to lift sanctions. So, I think there’s also a lack of incentive on the North Korean side to engage in a way that would lift these sanctions and that then incentivizes greater sanctions evasion. It strengthens these networks that are designed to go around sanctions.
How would China, the United States, and Russia respond if North Korea did a nuclear test?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:11] So I’m glad you mentioned the geopolitical environment in which these new missile tests are taking place. You know, earlier you mentioned there’s like a seasonality to North Korean missile tests but this time around, we are in this kind of hardened international environment in which, the U.S. and Russia and China are increasingly at odds. And the whole diplomatic framework for engaging North Korea requires unanimity between Russia, China, and the United States. In this context, should indeed North Korea detonate a seventh nuclear test, can we expect the costs that are imposed on North Korea to be more muted than they have in the past?
Kelsey Davenport [00:13:04] Well, I do think that there’s going to be a difference in an international response to a missile test versus a nuclear test and that’s in part because Beijing does have some concerns about further nuclear testing from North Korea. Part of what stems from questions about the stability of the North Korean nuclear test site and the implications that further tests at that location could have in terms of the geology, in terms of radiation release, so I do think that if North Korea conducts another nuclear test, there is a greater chance that the Security Council might act. I do think, however, that if we look at nonproliferation writ large, if we look at the sanctions space writ large, there is sanctions fatigue setting in that’s bigger than North Korea. That’s more of a regime wide phenomenon right now. And I think there is frustration in Beijing and Moscow that predates this discontinuity and policy approaches to North Korea over how the U.S. applies and wields sanctions. So, in that respect, I do think that any future U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution against North Korea is probably going to have to be negotiated or watered down from what the United States and some of its regional allies might prefer in order to get passage through the Security Council. But I do think that if North Korea conducts a nuclear test, there is a chance, a higher chance, that the Security Council will act, even though their response has been so muted on missile tests, just because the growth of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program further concerns the threats of proliferation. Nobody benefits from this scenario.
What is the Biden administration’s approach to foreign policy with North Korea?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:11] So we’re two years into the Biden administration now. How would you characterize the Biden administration’s approach to North Korea compared to his immediate predecessor and also compared to generally the trend in U.S. policy towards North Korea in recent years?
Kelsey Davenport [00:15:32] You know, every president comes into office with the intention of reviewing North Korea policy, but ultimately, they end up with a very similar approach and change the name in order to distinguish themselves from their predecessors. If you look at the Biden administration’s North Korea policy, I mean, it retains a number of features of the Trump administration’s policy, of the Obama administration’s policy, which is to continue to ratchet up sanctions and to rhetorically support diplomacy and call for talks, but ultimately put the ball in North Korea’s court to get negotiations started. And I think in part that’s why we’ve seen diplomacy have so little success in addressing the North Korean nuclear threat and the lack of diplomatic success, I think, has led a number of people to conclude that we cannot reduce nuclear risk with North Korea. We cannot successfully negotiate. We cannot get them to give up their nuclear programs, but that sentiment has never really been truly tested by an effective negotiating process. I think the Biden administration would be much more likely to achieve success in negotiations with North Korea and demonstrate to Kim Jong un that they are interested in effective diplomacy that also benefits North Korea, if they were to put some more specifics on the table to show how North Korea would benefit from talks. Generally, when the Biden administration, the Trump administration talked about engaging with North Korea on the nuclear program, a lot of the action was front loaded on North Korea. North Korea had to take a number of steps to reduce nuclear risk before it would receive anything in return and that’s not a bargain that’s going to appeal to Pyongyang. So, if you could show North Korea that there will be some tangible benefits if it engages in diplomacy, then I think talks are much more likely to succeed. Unfortunately, right now, given North Korea’s kind of ratcheting up of its missile testing and the possibility of another nuclear test, it doesn’t seem likely that Pyongyang wants to negotiate right now. I mean, it seems like Kim Jong un kind of similar to 2017, before North Korea negotiated with the Trump administration, that they’re trying to expand their nuclear weapons related capabilities in order to enter negotiations from a position of greater strength. But the Biden administration could be laying the groundwork now for effective diplomacy if they weren’t just saying, you know, we’re willing to talk without preconditions. Until then, we’re going to continue our sanctions approach, but actually said, this is what North Korea might be able to expect from a negotiating process and this is what we might be asking North Korea to do earlier on. Of course, no administration is going to go into specifics; they’re not going to want to give away their negotiating strategy, but I think the Biden administration could do a better job of just kind of laying out in broad principles how Pyongyang would benefit from this negotiation.
Will North Korea ever give up its nuclear power?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:54] So there’s this idea floating out there. It was publicly aired in a New York Times op ed by Jeffrey Lewis, who I’m sure you know, is another arms control expert that I’ve interview frequently on this podcast, saying basically that the U.S. should recognize that North Korea is not going to give up its nukes. It is a nuclear power and no longer demand North Korea’s denuclearization. Rather find other ways in which the U.S. and North Korea can start a relationship that perhaps reduces nuclear risk, reduces the chances of North Korea firing a nuclear weapon, either purposefully or accidentally, but recognize that nothing is going to change North Korea’s strategic calculus. They are committed fully to nuclear weapons. I take it you, from what I heard in your last answer, you don’t fully buy that argument. Can you just respond to it and address it?
Kelsey Davenport [00:19:55] Well, it’s not that I don’t fully buy it. I mean, I think that Jeffrey Lewis raises an important point about the focus of negotiations now being on risk reduction and trying to prevent nuclear use and prevent a nuclear crisis. I think given that denuclearization is going to be a very complex, multi-year process, starting with some of those principles of trying to reduce risk, of engaging in sort of arms control negotiations makes sense. I’m reluctant, though, to give up denuclearization as a long-term goal because I think it has negative implications for the broader nonproliferation regime. You know, North Korea has nuclear weapons, I mean, there’s no question about that. But if we formally accept North Korea as a nuclear armed state, I’m concerned that that could send the message to other would-be proliferators, that if they build nuclear weapons and just stick at it long enough, that they, too, could be granted some type of acceptance as a nuclear armed states kind of within the international order. And given that we might be at the precipice of further challenges to the nonproliferation regime, other states trying to build up nuclear hedging capabilities, I just don’t think that’s a precedent that we want to set right now. However, I don’t think that we should go into any negotiations, as I said, demanding denuclearization from the onset. It’s not going to happen; it’s not going to happen politically; it’s not going to happen technically. And risk reduction right now should be the more immediate concern. But I wouldn’t abandon denuclearization altogether, in part because North Korea itself has committed to denuclearization multiple times. In part because the U.S. has also committed to dismantle its nuclear weapons as part of its international treaty commitments. So, holding states to the standard where they’re expected to ultimately give up their nuclear weapons, addressing the security concerns that prompt states to get them, I think is just an important part of the general nonproliferation and disarmament architecture that I’d be reluctant to move away from at this point.
How can the United States reduce nuclear risk?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:21] So if denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the long-term goal, as you articulated, and not something that is likely to happen in the near term, are there any concrete steps that key international players like the United States could take to reduce nuclear risk in the near or short term?
Kelsey Davenport [00:22:43] I absolutely think there are critical steps that that the United States could take right now. Currently, I think the prospect of miscalculation on the Korean Peninsula is very high. The risk that North Korea perceives a military exercise as an impending attack. The risk that this escalation of missile testing could lead to a missile accidentally targeting the other states. That is very concerning. I mean, I think that there are steps that should be taken to increase crisis communications in the region. I think that the United States and South Korea could roll back some of its military exercises to make them less provocative. I mean, it’s not surprising that North Korea responds to some of these exercises when part of South Korea is planning about how to respond to the North Korean threat, is the concept trying to sort of decapitate the North Korean leadership? I mean, of course, Pyongyang is going to see that as provocative and respond. So, I think the U.S. and South Korea could maintain military readiness without that same level of provocation directed at North Korea. I also think that in the interim, if we’re thinking about other sort of initial steps than a diplomatic agreement or confidence building measures, South Korea could look at its own ballistic missile program and put something on the table that might be attractive to North Korea. Maybe both sides refrain from testing missiles of a certain range for a particular period of time. That’s one thing that I think often is missed in this conversation, that the United States and South Korea are not just responding to North Korea’s military advances, North Korea is also responding to the U.S. and South Korea’s military advances. They’re responding to the missile race in the region, even though they themselves have instigated part of it. So, I think you have to look at this complex dynamic and think about how North Korea perceives its security concerns and the dynamics in the region, and then that can help demonstrate places where tensions could be lowered to prevent miscalculation in the short term.
How does North Korea’s nuclear policy change if Kim Jong un were unable to lead?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:02] So these recent missile tests come on the heels of a law that was passed in North Korea just a few months ago regulating chain of custody or chain of command or otherwise, stipulating how North Korea might respond to an attack should Kim Jong un be incapacitated somehow. How do these tests fit into that?
Kelsey Davenport [00:25:30] Well, I think that the law really codifies the two missions laid out for North Korea’s nuclear deterrent to prevent an attack and to repel an attack if deterrence fails. So, the shorter-range tests and the barrage of tests that may be designed to evade missile defenses and all of these are consistent with that repellant objective that’s now enshrined in that North Korean law. But there are other elements of the law that I think are quite interesting and do provide a bit more clarity about nuclear posture and then policy in North Korea. And one of the elements that I think is quite significant is that the law does state that if Kim Jong un, who has sort of sole authority over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, if something were to happen to him, that a nuclear strike would still be launched, so that there are essentially sort of back up plans for command and control of the arsenal if something were to happen to Kim. And I think that really was designed to send a message to South Korea that in its planning and its range of military readiness and exercises that it’s maintaining that any attempt to try to prevent a nuclear strike by taking out the North Korean leadership will not work because the nuclear arsenal will still be launched. And I think that those were really some of the key aspects of that law. Now, the law does also state that North Korea is willing to use nuclear weapons first. And in describing kind of the range of scenarios under which that is permissible, I think it does demonstrate that Pyongyang would not feel inhibited in using nuclear weapons against a conventional attack if it viewed the regime as under threat. So again, I think that demonstrates that in this escalatory spiral of tensions we’re seeing in the Korean Peninsula, again, there is really a significant chance of miscalculation resulting in this spiral escalating to conflict, and that that conflict could indeed go nuclear because of these dynamics and the rhetoric and the escalations that are currently ongoing.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:10] Thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it.
Kelsey Davenport [00:28:13] Yeah, my pleasure.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:22] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.