North Korea's Monday short-range missile launches were its fourth round this month. They signaled that the Biden administration is not going to ignore them. The Biden administration has been more focused on dealing with larger adversaries like Russia and China.
Experts believe that the tests may also indicate a growing urgency for relief from outside sources after the country's economy has been further damaged by severe sanctions and two years worth of border closures due to pandemics.
Two missiles were launched Monday near Pyongyang's capital. This was following a resumption railroad freight traffic with China, which had been suspended due to pandemic concerns. It is possible that this is an attempt at rescuing the economy.
Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, stated Monday that trade between China's Dandong and North Korea's Sinuiju will continue while pandemic control measures are in place.
Although North Korea will likely continue to display its weapons over the next few weeks, it may keep things relatively quiet prior to the February Winter Olympics in China. This is because China is its main ally.
It could also dramatically increase the stakes once the Beijing Games are over. Analyst at Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies Du Hyeogn Cha said Kim may resume testing nuclear explosives or intercontinental ballistic rockets.
Kim suspended nuclear and ICBM testing in 2018, while engaging in negotiations with Donald Trump, the former U.S. president. The diplomacy has been stalled since the second summit in 2019. In 2019, the Americans rejected North Korea’s request for significant sanctions relief in return for partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
In recent months, North Korea has increased the testing of short-range missiles to counter missile defenses in the region.
Its leaders might think that it should stage more provocative tests in order to move the needle. The Biden administration has offered open-ended negotiations but has not shown any willingness to relax sanctions unless Kim makes real efforts to end his nuclear weapons program.
It is unclear whether nuclear or ICBM testing would result in Washington agreeing to a compromise. Washington is more likely than not to respond with additional sanctions and military pressures, Cha stated.
Nam Sung-wook is a North Korea expert from Seoul's Korea University. He said that a nuclear test was more likely than an ICBM attack because it would cause a higher level of shock. It is possible that the North will use this test to prove it can produce a small nuclear warhead large enough to fit on its hypersonic missile, which was first tested in September.
Nam stated that North Korea would schedule the test to maximize its political impact, as South Korea's presidential elections are scheduled for March and President Joe Biden is facing critical midterm elections in November. In September 2017, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear explosive device test.
Nam stated that Pyongyang sees no other way to get Washington's attention, than by provoking majorly.
North Korea's efforts to increase its weapon capabilities have been boosted following Kim's 2021 declaration of a new five year plan to develop his military forces. The ambitious wish list included hypersonic missiles and solid-fuel ICBMs as well as spy satellites.
However, Kim's determination to end the country's deepening economic problems as well as international isolation has been evident in the increased frequency of tests over the past decade. This appears to be his most difficult period.
"Externally, North Korea wants to declare that it will continue its independent path regardless of any sanctions. Cha stated that internally, the leadership wants to tell its people that the supreme leaders' promises will be fulfilled no matter what.
"But they're proceeding with the tests very quickly, and this reveals that Pyongyang’s leadership is concerned. They must do something with the United States by 2022, or they could get into trouble."
South Korean estimates show that North Korea's trade volume with China fell by around 80% in 2020, before falling by two-thirds the following nine months. As Kim's 2011 election saw a drop in grain production, the 2020 contraction was the largest since 1997.
North Korea describes its anti-coronavirus campaign, which it calls a matter "national existence", as severely restricting cross-border trade over the past two years. It is believed that troops were ordered to shoot anyone who crosses its borders.
Experts believe that a major COVID-19 epidemic would have catastrophic consequences due to North Korea's poor healthcare system and could even cause instability.
Park Won Gon, a Korean professor at Seoul's Ewha Womans University, stated that the resumption by the railroad route with China shows how difficult it is for the leadership to endure the economic strain caused due to border closures.
North Korea has been mastering the art of brinkmanship for decades. They have created diplomatic crises by using threats and weapons tests before offering to negotiate concessions. In 2017, Kim accelerated the process by staging highly provocative nuclear and ICBM test runs, while exchanging threats to nuclear annihilation (with Trump) before they began their diplomatic relations in 2018.
North Korea started 2022 with two launches of a hypersonic weapon. Kim claimed that these tests were successful and would greatly increase his "war deterrent." The Biden administration placed new sanctions on those launches. On Friday, North Korea fired two missiles out of a train.
The North launched a weapon similar to the U.S. MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System, according to state media photos. These missiles were first tested by North Korea in 2019. They are part of North Korea's growing short-range weaponry.
Park stated that North Korea's push for mass-production of such missiles is part of its effort to consolidate its status as nuclear power. He stated that the pressure campaign by North Korea is not just about gaining economic benefits, but also to negotiate from a position in Washington and transform nuclear diplomacy into mutual arms reduction talks.