At the turn of 2022, Pyongyang dramatically increased the pace of its missile testing, raising fears of renewed North Korean brinksmanship after an extended period of relative calm. That calm was a function, first, of a diplomatic process with the United States that played out during the last three years of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and, secondly, of the COVID-19 pandemic. But January saw seven separate testing events, more than during any single calendar month on record. On 5 and again on 11 January, Pyongyang tested what it claimed were hypersonic weapons. It then tested a pair of mobile short-range ballistic missiles – derived from Soviet technology acquired long ago –from a train on 14 January and two “tactical guided missiles” on 17 January. On 25 January it fired two “long-range cruise” missiles, and on 27 January it launched two more short-range ballistic missiles. The most notable of the January tests was, however, the last: a 30 January launch of the Hwasong-12, an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM).
The Hwasong-12, which is capable of overflying Japan and reaching U.S. bases in Okinawa and the U.S. territory of Guam, was launched on a lofted trajectory, constraining its flight to approximately 800km at a maximum altitude of 2,000km. By North Korean standards, this stunted flight arguably signalled considerable restraint. Yet it was Pyongyang’s longest-range test since the launch of a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in November 2017. For that reason alone, it is the greatest provocation North Korea has engaged in since the “fire and fury” era of 2016 and 2017, when a combination of nuclear and missile tests and particularly bellicose rhetoric from both Pyongyang and Washington led some observers to fear the Korean peninsula was on the brink of conflict.
The 30 January IRBM launch raised alarms in Washington, particularly because it followed Pyongyang’s thinly veiled threat to put an end to its unilateral moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing, which it self-imposed in early 2018 during the run-up to the historic June summit between Trump and General Secretary Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Although dialogue then stalled following the failure of the second Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi, in February 2019, the moratorium held. Both the U.S. and South Korea have repeatedly said since that a return to the testing the North suspended would amount to crossing a non-negotiable red line, closing the door to further diplomatic efforts for the foreseeable future.
For most of February, the North halted testing, likely in order to avoid aggravating its main economic patron and political backer, China, during the Beijing Winter Olympics. But the Olympic games concluded on 20 February, and although, as a rule, conflict risks associated with North Korean missile testing remain low, question marks remain about what may happen next both militarily and diplomatically on the peninsula. On 27 February, Japan and South Korea announced that they had detected a new launch, possibly of a ballistic missile. Pyongyang did not confirm such a launch, announcing instead that it had tested camera technology for a reconnaissance satellite and providing high-altitude photos, thus setting the stage for a potentially much more provocative testing regimen in the coming months.
Beginning 2022 with a Bang
January’s spate of missile launches was anticipated by official statements from Pyongyang suggesting that North Korea has decided to incrementally raise the stakes by military means. At the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party in January 2021, as reported by North Korean state media, Kim Jong-un declared that a period of military development (and, by extension, testing) would be coming, something that he implicitly reaffirmed at a plenary meeting of the party’s central committee held in late December.
With the testing tempo noticeably increasing in the last few months of 2021 and spiking yet further in early January 2022, a concerned UN Security Council convened to discuss the matter on 10 January. It was less than successful. A U.S. proposal for new punitive measures against Pyongyang was rejected by China and Russia, and the meeting ended without a meaningful decision. Two days later, the U.S. pivoted to impose unilateral sanctions on six North Korean citizens, one Russian national and a Russian firm linked to North Korean weapons programs.
If anything, this move seems to have given North Korea more impetus. On 14 January, the North Korean foreign ministry accused the U.S. of “intentionally escalating the situation by imposing unilateral sanctions”, adding: “If the U.S. defiantly adopts such a confrontational stance, [we] can’t but show a stronger and clear reaction to it”. Then, at a 20 January politburo meeting, as reported by state media, Pyongyang went on to openly threaten an end to its self-imposed moratorium, saying it would “promptly examine the issue of restarting all temporally-suspended activities”. The UN Security Council met again that same day, again with inconclusive results. The IRBM test followed shortly thereafter, once again violating the UN’s ban on Pyongyang’s ballistic missile tests, but without breaking the North’s own ICBM test moratorium, an escalatory step that would have caused greater international consternation.
The string of tests reflects Pyongyang’s discontent at the direction events have taken since the abortive U.S.-North Korea Hanoi summit in February 2019. The diplomatic efforts that began in the run-up to Singapore, faltered at Hanoi and sputtered along until close to the end of the Trump administration did not lead to a breakthrough in relations with the U.S., nor the easing of UN sanctions that Pyongyang hoped would come with it, nor the inter-Korean economic resurgence that could have been an important result. North Korea’s only significant gain in the international arena over the last few years was to stabilise economic and political relations with China, which had reached a low point in 2017 after several years of decline, but which recovered thanks to North Korea’s decision to halt testing and engage the U.S. and South Korea, first on the sidelines of the 2018 Winter Olympics and then through the ensuing rounds of senior-level diplomacy.
What Pyongyang does next is an open question. The January testing spree was followed by a hiatus while China hosted the Winter Olympics for much of February. At a time when it is seeking to get its economy back on an even keel, North Korea still cannot afford to truly jeopardise relations with China. But Pyongyang is facing a decision about whether to maintain its current pause or resume, and potentially escalate, testing. The apparent 27 February launch suggests it has at least chosen to resume. What happens next will be driven in part by technical requirements linked to North Korea’s weapons development plans, but also by several other considerations including inter-Korean dynamics, the Biden administration’s approach to peninsular affairs, and economic, social and political conditions in North Korea itself.
The recent missile tests are not the first since the failure of the second summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un in Hanoi in February 2019. Indeed, North Korea’s first post-Hanoi launch came as early as May the same year, even as the diplomatic process with Seoul and Washington was still under way. But the testing conducted in 2019 and 2020 was mostly of short-range projectiles, did not involve new weapons systems and was well within the terms of the self-declared moratorium.
The current testing cycle, however, is different. It began when Pyongyang launched cruise missiles on 11 and 12 September 2021, followed by railway-mobile ballistic missiles from a location in South Pyongan province on 15 September, and a submarine-launch ballistic missile (SLBM) a month later. Although within the lines of the moratorium, these were deliberately eye-catching, especially the launches from a train. In that regard, they were like the January 2022 tests that followed.
The timing of those autumn 2021 tests formed part of Pyongyang’s response to annual joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea held in August. The response was initiated a month earlier on 8 August, the day Seoul confirmed that the exercises would begin on 10 August, when North Korea stopped answering regular calls on inter-Korean hotlines designed to reduce risk along the inter-Korean border. Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister and a reliable messenger of North Korean discontent, said in a statement carried by state media that if South Korea were to carry out the military exercises with the U.S., it would damage the resolve of the two Koreas to rebuild relations. Kim Yong-chol, head of the North Korean ruling party’s United Front Department (which is the equivalent of South Korea’s Ministry of Unification), vowed a day later to make South Korea and the U.S. “pay dearly” for staging their annual drills, stating via state media that the decision meant “letting the opportunity [for improved inter-Korean relations] go”.
But beyond signalling frustration with the joint exercises, the September and October tests served three further purposes. They were timed to send, first, a message of defiance to both the U.S. and Japan, whose nuclear envoys met with their South Korean counterpart on 13 September to discuss strategies to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, and secondly, one of aggravation to China, whose foreign minister was having lunch with his South Korean colleague Chung Eui-yong in Seoul at the time of the ballistic missile launches on 15 September. They also correlated with missile tests carried out by South Korea. Seoul conducted an SLBM test of its own on 15 September, with President Moon Jae-in in attendance, and revealed a new air-launch cruise missile the same day. On 21 October, two days after North Korea’s SLBM launch, South Korea launched its civilian Nuri rocket into space. While nominally separate from weapons testing, the rocket launch involved indigenous ballistic technology. It also came against the backdrop of the U.S. dropping all restrictions on South Korean missile ranges in May 2021, leading North Korea to interpret the launch as a sign of growing military risk.
South Korea’s implicit green light from the U.S. to develop space launch vehicles could embolden North Korea still further in its efforts to develop its own ballistic technology. Pyongyang has in the past conducted several ostensibly civilian space rocket launches, but not for several years. Kim Jong-un hinted at the likelihood of another in his speech to the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party in January 2021, saying the country must aim to launch a military reconnaissance satellite within five years. Given that it hitched a satellite launch to the 100th birth anniversary of national founder Kim Il-sung in April 2012, killing the U.S.-North Korea “leap day deal”, there is the potential for another for the 110th anniversary in April. The 27 February satellite camera test and the fact that South Korea is due to make a second attempt with its Nuri rocket in June only make this prospect seem more likely.
The Role of the Biden Administration
South Korea has indicated that it would very much like to create new momentum for diplomatic engagement with the North, although this desire is in tension with its own military testing. But Washington’s reticence to get involved in inter-Korean dynamics over the last year has, when coupled to North Korea’s own silence with respect to diplomacy, left the South a bit at sea.
Since it took office in January 2021, the Biden administration has projected some passivity on the North Korea issue, exemplified by the pace and style of staffing decisions. Following the departure of Ambassador Harry Harris from Seoul in January 2021, Washington did not nominate a successor for over a year. Seasoned diplomat Sung Y. Kim was appointed as special envoy for North Korea policy in May 2021, but though Kim is highly experienced in Korean affairs, he is juggling two jobs – he is also the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia – suggesting that the Korea file is presently not a top priority in Washington. This may have reflected the Biden administration’s sense that there was little progress to be made, at least in 2021. Mired in fears of a potentially ruinous COVID-19 outbreak within its borders, North Korea was unlikely to restart dialogue. While South Korea’s President Moon was keen to re-engage in talks, even holding out the possibility of a last-minute summit in the hope of building his own legacy and smoothing the transition to his successor – who will be elected in national elections in March – officials in Washington did not appear to see much prospect for a return to denuclearisation talks.
Absent U.S. engagement, Pyongyang ignored Seoul’s entreaties to engage in talks as essentially meaningless, and simultaneously sought ways to raise its international profile and improve its negotiating position. Now that the North has entered a more assertive phase of this process, the U.S. and South Korea are poorly coordinated on how to deal with it. The bilateral disconnect is compounded by the uncertainty created by South Korea’s 9 March presidential election. Because the election – which pits Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party against the conservative former Chief Prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol – could spell a change in direction for the South’s inter-Korean policies, it is difficult for either Washington or Seoul to develop far-reaching plans until afterward.
North Korea: From Stressed to Confident?
North Korea closed its land borders with China in January 2020 in response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. For almost two years thereafter, the country conducted no overland trade with its biggest economic partner, relying almost entirely on fitful trade through the port of Nampo, much of it from the Chinese city of Dalian. The strict border closure led to considerable economic distress, triggering food insecurity and affecting household incomes, as shown by demand switching from relatively costly rice to the cheaper alternative, corn, and prices for manufactured goods rising dramatically as supplies grew scarcer. Even among the Pyongyang middle class, a knowledgeable source told Crisis Group, hard currency reserves dwindled over the course of 2021, and peer-to-peer lending between members of the middle class largely stopped.
But later in the year, as the state began to feel it had more of a handle on the pandemic, that began to change. Beginning late in the autumn, trade began to slowly bounce back via the seaport in Nampo, and macro-economic conditions within North Korea somewhat stabilised. The pace ramped up further in January 2022 when overland trade resumed after a period of planning. Freight trains began to more regularly cross the border between Dandong, in China, and the North Korean city of Sinuiju. Every train entering North Korea now travels 14km to a quarantine facility at an old Korean People’s Army Air Force base in Uiju, where goods are unloaded, disinfected and quarantined before distribution. Similar facilities have been established for other crossings, including on the Russian border, and seem set to start operating in the coming months.
Rather than slow this trend, the emergence of COVID-19’s omicron variant in late 2021 seems to have reinforced Pyongyang’s growing sense of self-assurance, according to Crisis Group interlocutors. The relative mildness of the variant, emerging treatments and availability of vaccines for those whom the state deems need them appear to have helped the leadership feel comfortable reopening its land borders to the flow of goods and resuming some day-to-day diplomacy while avoiding the need for a mass vaccination program that, from Pyongyang’s perspective, would allow suppliers to engage in foul play and present a grave risk to national security.
North Korea’s renewed confidence in its ability to conduct economic, diplomatic and of course military activities exemplifies Kim Jong-un’s comment during the fourth plenum of the Workers’ Party, in December, that North Korea has come “to have clear vision about our possibility and self-confidence”. This return to a degree of normalcy is also reflected in the country’s diplomatic sphere. In Pyongyang, diplomats who remained in the North Korean capital despite the pandemic’s hardships were invited to attend celebrations of the 80th anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s birth in Kim Il-sung Square on 16 February, marking the first such welcome of non-Koreans to a public event since 2019.
It is clear that North Korea plans to continue building, improving and testing its weapons systems, as Kim Jong-un laid out in January 2021 when discussing the party’s priorities for military strengthening over the next five years. With support from Russia and China in the UN Security Council minimising the risk that further tests will generate a new generation of UN sanctions, increased trade volumes across land borders bringing in hard currency to government accounts, and the threat of COVID-19 diminished, North Korea can only feel increasingly confident that it has room to implement a military and political strategy that, it no doubt hopes, will improve its bargaining position.
In the immediate term, there is little hope that international diplomacy could convince it to change course. Notwithstanding the Olympic hiatus, Pyongyang presumably intends to complete its testing cycle for military purposes. North Korea also treats military testing as a way to position itself as a political variable in Seoul politics. Alternating between tensions and periods of calm keeps the left and right in a state of constant disagreement in Seoul; it also offers Pyongyang a means of ensuring that a bipartisan consensus on what to do about the “North Korea problem” does not emerge in the South. Finally, if North Korea decides that it will conduct military tests or, more likely, launch a satellite under the auspices of celebrating the anniversary of national founder Kim Il-sung’s birth on 15 April, there is little international actors can do to shift it from that path.
What remains to be seen is whether Pyongyang opts to focus its attention solely on the military sphere once the South Korean 9 March election and the 15 April anniversary pass, or whether proactive diplomacy from Seoul and Washington along the way could prompt it to come back to the negotiating table to discuss mitigating hostilities and managing nuclear risk to the point where sanctions lifting starts to become feasible from the U.S. perspective. The evidence thus far is not particularly encouraging, but while there are no assurances Pyongyang would play along, it is worth a try.
Such an effort will require several things to come together, however. As a threshold matter, the Biden administration – right now enormously distracted by the Ukraine crisis – will need to focus more intently on the peninsula. One useful step Washington could take would be recommitting to the Singapore Declaration that Kim and Trump signed at their first meeting in 2018. That document provides most importantly for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and U.S. security guarantees for Pyongyang. It would be a viable starting point for fresh talks. Although vague, it constitutes a loose framework for dialogue both sides can accept. Kim spoke positively about the declaration in his Eighth Congress speech in January 2021, describing it as a success for the North and intimating that Pyongyang would take it as the starting point for future talks; the Biden team has also spoken positively about Singapore. If the two sides were to reiterate their support for this framework, ideally with North Korea making a low-cost gesture such as returning the remains of more U.S. soldiers lost in the Korean War (as envisaged in the declaration), there may be space for more substantial negotiations building on the agreement.
But if there is to be any progress at all, Pyongyang will need to avoid any provocation that goes beyond the parameters of the moratorium and thus leads Washington to decide talks will be fruitless, at least in the short term. This means North Korea must start by resisting the temptation to exploit the Ukraine crisis by testing its larger missiles that can reach the continental U.S. or even reviving its nuclear testing program. In short, it means ensuring that the birth anniversary of Kim Il-sung in April does not go off with too much of a bang.
Christopher Green, Senior Consultant, Korean Peninsula.