The United States shouldn’t be distracted by North Korea’s latest weapons test

Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released this photo of Kim Jong Un on April 17, 2019
Image: KCNA

On April 18, North Korean media reported that on the previous day, Kim Jong Un observed the testing of a new “tactical guided weapon.” Outside security experts quickly ruled out the weapon being an intercontinental ballistic missile, meaning it is most likely a component of North Korea’s conventional artillery.

Though this is the first weapon test since the February summit in Hanoi, Vietnam between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, it would be a mistake to regard this action as a sign that North Korea is sending a threatening message to Washington. In fact, while the details of the device and intentions behind the test remain unclear, it may be viewed as an overall positive in terms of diplomacy with the United States.

Consider the situation in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Un’s domestic agenda since the beginning of 2018 has been to improve North Korea’s economy, which has been decimated by a combination of internal neglect and United Nations sanctions.

Hoping to achieve sanctions relief through talks with President Trump, the Hanoi summit instead resulted in disagreement between the two sides and an early conclusion without a signed agreement. So returning from the highly anticipated trip empty-handed was likely a significant blow to Kim at home. Indeed, news that the second US-North Korean summit ended in failure is reported to be rapidly spreading among North Koreans.

It is important to remember that just as in the United States and South Korea, there are hardliners in Pyongyang who are skeptical of diplomacy. After two summits within a year with the American president without sanctions relief, the elite voices in North Korea that questioned the wisdom of engaging with the enemy have likely grown louder.

The test also came on the heels of the 14th Supreme Assembly in Pyongyang, the meeting of North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament. There, Kim used policy speeches and cabinet reshuffles to reaffirm the government’s priority of developing the economy. While Kim did make the standard criticism of never surrendering to “hostile outside forces,” he did not mention the United States specifically or indicate North Korea would resume nuclear or ballistic missile tests.

These factors add up to the likelihood that the recent test was mostly intended for an internal audience. After more than a year of overwhelming focus on the economy through diplomacy abroad and on-site visits at home, Kim needed to demonstrate that he is not neglecting the military, whose loyalty he must command in order to maintain absolute rule over the country.

However, while appeasing hardliners in Pyongyang, the North Korean leader has signaled that he is still serious about diplomacy with Washington. Remember, immediately following the Hanoi summit, activity began at the Sohae missile engine test site, leading some to speculate that North Korea might launch a satellite, which uses ballistic missile technology. While still possible, no new activity has been reported there in over a month. This most recent test, similar to the one in November of 2018, did not use ballistic missiles and North Korean media did not report on targets or specific adversaries.

These calculations indicate that Kim is aware of the provocation threshold but is careful not to cross it. He has also expressed a willingness to meet with President Trump again.

Therefore, the United States should trust its diplomatic instincts and continue genuine dialogue with North Korea. Finding common ground between Washington and Pyongyang was never going to be an easy task, but the recent weapon test does not represent a fundamental change to North Korea’s commitment to diplomacy.

Was the test a case of saber rattling? Perhaps, but the rattling was likely intended to keep North Korea’s military satisfied and not to intimidate the United States. For that, Kim would have used a much bigger saber.

Nate Kerkhoff is an assistant researcher at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.