North Korea Has Escalated Its Military Provocations. Here’s Why.

In Brief

North Korea Has Escalated Its Military Provocations. Here’s Why.

North Korea seeks to exploit major-power rivalries and weaken U.S.-South Korea ties with its ramped-up missile testing. Already, it has ratcheted up nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula to their highest level in years.

North Korea entered its most intense period of missile testing ever in recent weeks. The dozens of tests it conducted from September to November, including of intermediate-range ballistic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles, are part of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s long-term plan to strengthen the country’s military capabilities. The intensified testing has also been orchestrated to express North Korea’s displeasure with a series of military exercises mounted by the United States and South Korea since September.

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It is important to note the broader ambitions behind the ramped-up activity from Pyongyang:

Taking Advantage of Geopolitical Tensions

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Pyongyang can escalate its missile testing program with relative impunity in a geopolitical environment characterized by deepening fissures between the United States and China and Russia. It has enhanced its alignment with both Moscow and Beijing by pledging closer “strategic and tactical” cooperation, providing Pyongyang with cover for more aggressive testing. In the summer of 2022, China and Russia blocked a UN resolution to sanction North Korea for its missile tests over Japan, thwarting U.S.-led efforts to expand sanctions against North Korea for the first time. North Korea now perceives a green light to continue various forms of missile testing, and possibly even another nuclear test, with relative impunity. Under these conditions, the United States will need to strengthen coordination with Japan and South Korea if it wants to bind North Korea’s military development.

Testing U.S. Commitments to South Korea

An emboldened North Korea has probed the full spectrum of U.S. and South Korean deterrence measures, from low-end, local provocations to testing the United States’ extended deterrence pledges to defend South Korea from a nuclear attack. North Korea has challenged the Northern Limit Line—a de facto maritime border with South Korea that North Korea doesn’t recognize—with a ship intrusion, artillery shelling, air drills, and a short-range missile launch that came close enough to South Korea’s Ulleung Island to set off security alarms. These probes, intended as political and military tests for the administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, elicited an effective allied response that forced the North Korean vessel to retreat to its side of the Northern Limit Line and signaled a tit-for-tat response to North Korea’s firings of artillery and missiles near South Korea.

Demonstrating Its Preemptive Capabilities

The tests have also shown Pyongyang’s ability to take preemptive measures as South Korea moves to develop its own deterrent response to North Korea’s nuclear development. Seoul has focused on missile defense, preemptive strikes, and a strategy it calls “massive punishment and retaliation.” The Yoon administration has emphasized these capabilities as the centerpiece of its policy emphasis on deterrence of a nuclear North Korea. In response to Yoon’s public statements highlighting South Korea’s preemptive capabilities, Pyongyang has issued guidance on preemptive use of nuclear weapons against South Korea and tested short-range ballistic missiles capable of delivering a tactical nuclear weapon. The emerging competition over preemptive capabilities raises inter-Korean tensions and requires even closer U.S.-South Korea coordination to ensure a unified response.

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Enhancing Its Nuclear Capabilities

North Korea aims to enhance its nuclear strike capabilities while rejecting denuclearization talks with the United States. Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear and missile testing brings it closer to highlighting U.S. vulnerability to a North Korean nuclear strike. Such testing also attempts to exploit South Korea’s doubts about the United States’ willingness to defend it against a nuclear North Korea.

A nuclear test, which would be North Korea’s first since September 2017 and its seventh ever, would likely intensify such debates, generating tensions between alliance partners that North Korea could exploit for its own strategic ends. If North Korea were to perceive that it is losing control of the escalatory spiral it has initiated, a return to diplomatic talks could provide a way to ease tensions. But under these circumstances, talks themselves would be unlikely to yield progress; North Korea’s primary purpose in returning to talks would be to bring tensions back under control, not to engage in good-faith negotiations over denuclearization, which remains the combined U.S.-South Korea policy objective toward North Korea.

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