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It’s Time to Change How We Handle North Korea’s Missile Tests


By Troy Stangarone

It took all of five days after the election of Moon Jae-in as South Korea’s president for North Korea to test a ballistic missile. The test, perhaps intended to gain maximum effect by simultaneously sending a signal to China, took place only hours before Xi Jinping was set to give a major address at an international summit hosted by Beijing on the One Belt, One Road initiative.  Two additional missile tests have since followed, the first of which was likely designed to simulate the reentry of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) without provoking the United States by conducting an actual ICBM test, and the second of which was thought to be a demonstration of North Korea’s capabilities.

While the international community has largely focused on North Korea’s nuclear tests, its continuing development of delivery devices is equally dangerous to international peace and stability. In recent years, Pyongyang has made significant progress on its missile development and is likely able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile capable of reaching South Korea and Japan. It has also made progress on developing missiles that could serve as a second strike capability and which would provide little warning prior to launch. It has been most successful in developing a mobile launched solid fuel rocket, but has also begun the process of developing a submarine launched ballistic missile.

Despite the danger that North Korea’s missile tests present, to date they have largely been consequence-free for the regime. While the international community condemns the tests, there has been little real cost to North Korea for its decision to keep advancing the development of delivery systems for its nuclear weapons. In contrast, its nuclear tests have sparked far harsher responses. Since Kim Jong-un has come to power, North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests and more than 60 missile tests. The United Nations has passed new sanctions resolutions after each of North Korea’s nuclear tests, but only four resolutions related to North Korea’s missile development.

The first resolution related to North Korea’s development of ballistic missiles, Resolution 1695, pre-dates Kim Jong-un and calls for the suspension of North Korea’s missile programs and for member states to prevent missile technology from being transferred to North Korea in accordance with national and international laws. While further resolutions have added sanctions or placed restrictions on missile related activities, only Resolution 2087 was explicitly related to a North Korean ballistic missile test while Resolution 2270 was in response to the quick succession of North Korea’s nuclear test and space launch.

On the international level, this may be slowly changing. The UN Security Council recently passed a small set of new sanctions tied to North Korea’s missile programs which sanctioned four entities and fourteen individuals. However, much as with prior sanctions, the lesson North Korea will likely draw is that there will be little cost to continuing on its current trajectory.

While U.S. sanctions are designed to slow the progress of North Korea’s weapons programs, they do not necessarily impose new costs on North Korea for each additional missile test.

Outside of the sanctions regime, the international community has tried a few other options to cut off the DPRK’s weapons program. For example, the United States and its allies have also worked to interdict the technology that North Korea needs for weapons development, specifically through programs such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). But there are limits to this approach. While PSI has been endorsed by over 100 countries, key countries such as China, Pakistan, and Iran have not done so to date. In addition, there are limits to interdicting materials in transit, even though UN sanctions also call for the inspection of all cargo destined for  North Korea.

Additionally, military options in the absence of a clear threat by North Korea to attack are unlikely to be a solution. Preemptively attacking missile sites prior to tests or attempting to shoot down North Korean missiles once they have been launched would both entail risks. A preemptive strike could precipitate retaliation by North Korea, while attempting to shoot down a North Korean missile and failing could lead Pyongyang to conclude that the U.S. and allied missile defenses are vulnerable. That leaves increasing sanctions as the only viable option for raising the costs of North Korea’s missile tests.

However, given the frequency of North Korea’s missile tests and the traditional slow pace of the UN Security Council’s response, it’s time to consider a different method. To do this the United States should consider working with China and Russia to develop a new set of sanctions that would go into place incrementally for each additional test that North Korea conducts, while also leaving room to address other issues with the regime in Pyongyang. Without raising the level of sanctions after each North Korean missile test, there is little deterrent to stop the regime from continuing to move its program forward.

While this is something that China and Russia would likely be reluctant to consider, what we do know is this – North Korea will conduct another missile test in the near future. The question is what the international community will do to try and prevent the regime in Pyongyang from perfecting their missile technology.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Ahsitaka San’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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3 Responses to “It’s Time to Change How We Handle North Korea’s Missile Tests”

  1. archita says:

    war now when NK is not full developed for war or war at 2020 when NK will be more ready.

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  1. […] to more quickly respond to the advancing pace of North Korea’s missile tests by preparing a menu of tightening multilateral sanctions options that have been informally agreed to in […]

  2. […] North Korea over its missile development. Prior to the current set of sanctions, there had been few UN Security Council resolutions explicitly in response to North Korean missile tests despite a significant increase in tests under […]


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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.