After four years without testing a weapon, North Korea launched a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile on March 24. With Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un’s military leadership billing it as the country’s most powerful ICBM yet, Kim conspicuously chose to test it while the United States and China were focusing on how to respond to the war in Ukraine. The decision marks the end of a relatively long calm on the Korean Peninsula, after Pyongyang declared in April 2018 that it would halt all missile testing as part of its negotiations with Washington. Oddly, the regime appears to be faking some of its claims about the weapon it just tested. After the new ICBM blew up during an earlier flight, scattering debris over Pyongyang, the successful March 24 test was of an older-model missile, according to surveillance from the United States and South Korea. What is North Korea doing?

Stephan Haggard is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, the director of the university’s Korea-Pacific Program, and the author of three books on North Korea. Haggard sees a lot of factors in play behind this strange series of events. Domestically, Kim is dealing with a failing economy, as rising food prices threaten a population already suffering from the effects of international sanctions and the economic consequences of Covid restrictions—so the test is sending an internal message during a time of adversity. Globally, meanwhile, Pyongyang is unhappy with the direction of diplomacy with the United States, and the launch could represent a political signal to Washington. As with any missile test from Kim’s opaque regime, Haggard says, this latest suggests new information not only about the country’s growing military capabilities but also about its shifting political environment.

Michael Bluhm: Why do this now?

Stephan Haggard: The test is part of a long arc that goes back at least to September 2017, which was a period of particular tension between the United States and North Korea. There was a confrontation over North Korean missile launches that year, similar to this recent one—missiles with intercontinental range. That confrontation led to a string of back-and-forth insults, when Donald Trump called Kim “Little Rocket Man,” and contentious UN General Assembly meetings in the fall of 2017.

Almost immediately after these meetings, you had a turn toward diplomacy initiated by the South Koreans. That resulted in the Singapore summit of June 2018 with Trump and Kim, as well as a series of summits between North and South Korea that year—and summits between Kim and the Chinese leadership, Kim being finally able to secure a summit with Xi Jinping after a long period of aversion on the Chinese side.

That long diplomacy built toward something significant: The North Koreans undertook a self-imposed moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and long-range, intercontinental ballistic missiles—a moratorium they’d maintained until now.

Mark Fahey

Another aspect of this diplomatic arc is that the Singapore summit didn’t create sanctions relief for North Korea. Since the Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim in February 2019, the North Koreans have been tremendously pessimistic about the future of the U.S.-North Korea relationship. This new missile test indicates a conclusion that nothing is going to happen unless something dramatic is done. You have to see the whole arc of this diplomacy to understand the North Korean realization that the United States is simply not going to come running.

Bluhm: Did the war in Ukraine influence Kim’s decision to test a missile now?

Haggard: I have no idea and I’m loath to speculate. Let’s walk through the rationality of doing that. Why would Kim think that, with the United States completely preoccupied with Ukraine, testing now would generate renewed attention to diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula? I’m not saying that he didn’t have some thought process that led him to think that. But it’s very hard to read any such interpretation into this test.

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