On April 22, Pyongyang fired a barrage of rockets into the East Sea, in what it said was the first test of a new command-and-control system for launching nuclear counterattacks. The test was just the latest in a series over the past few months: In March, North Korea tested long-range artillery; back in January, a hypersonic missile that could evade defense systems in South Korea and the U.S.; before that, in December, a non-nuclear ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. mainland.

Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un declared that the tests in March and April were responses to joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises underway at the time. But a number of analysts have seen the episodes as signs of something else: that Pyongyang is preparing a military attack. Late last year, it announced it henceforth considers South Korea a hostile country and no longer seeks reunification with it. Then, in January, Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker, two U.S. officials who’ve worked on North Korea for decades—Carlin with the State Department and CIA, Hecker as the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, the U.S. center for nuclear-weapons research—released an influential report detailing why they think Kim has made the decision to go to war.

What’s going on in Pyongyang?

Michael Breen has lived in South Korea for more than 40 years and is the author of three books on the two Koreas, including a biography of Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il. According to Breen, outside observers always have to interpret North Korean weapons tests through layers of possible meaning, often difficult to parse. Still, in the moment, he sees evidence that the tests potentially belong to the start of a transformative change—in a country long known for almost no change. After decades of privileging the military above all other institutions in North Korea, the government in Pyongyang is now instead showing signs of focus on broad economic development. But if he’s right, Breen says, it means Kim is trying to alter his country’s economy without altering its totalitarian politics—raising an enormous question about where and how far this change could go.

Michael Bluhm: What’s happening behind these new weapons tests?

Thomas Evans

Michael Breen: It’s never entirely clear what’s happening with anything in North Korea. But when it comes to weapons tests, it’s usually several things at once. One of them is a basic research need; in order to develop new weapons, you have to test new weapons. But another is the regime’s consideration of how a test will play at home—and another still, how it will play abroad.

Given how opaque North Korea is, weapons tests can seem to come out of nowhere, and it’s always easy for outside observers to imagine there’s a single cause for the timing. It’s always easy for outside observers in the U.S., in particular, to think these tests are messages meant for Washington—when in fact, when they’re messages at all, the U.S. is just one potential audience.

I can’t say how important technical weapons testing is to the recent launches. But it’s conspicuous that South Korea and the U.S. would be in the midst of conducting their annual large-scale war games on the Korean Peninsula—an exercise known as “Freedom Shield”—even if that doesn’t get much coverage in international media.

Pyongyang reliably says these exercises are rehearsals for a nuclear attack—and that it’ll respond forcefully if the U.S. and South Korea go ahead with them. But most people in the West don’t know about these warnings, so many end up seeing the missile tests as sudden outbreaks of aggression.

It could be that Kim is just sending a message to the South Koreans and the U.S. about the war games: Don’t mess with us.

Bluhm: Yet in January, Carlin’s and Hecker’s report made an influential case that the North Korean regime is gearing up for some sort of military attack. They say it’s the “most dangerous time” on the peninsula since the Korean War. What do you make of that?

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