North Korea just conducted its second missile test in less than a week — and it’s almost certainly a (literal) warning shot to President Donald Trump that Pyongyang is very, very unhappy that months of nuclear talks have produced few tangible results.
On Thursday afternoon local time, North Korea launched two missiles eastward from the Kusong region in the country’s northwest, according to South Korea’s military. The missiles landed in the East Sea between North Korea and Japan, though Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the missiles had had “no immediate impact on Japan’s security.”
Based on current information, it appears that the two weapons are both short-range ballistic missiles, similar to one tested by Pyongyang last Friday. These kinds of missiles can’t reach America’s mainland or islands, but they can reach South Korea and Japan, threatening the lives of thousands of citizens in those countries, as well as the roughly 80,000 US troops stationed in both nations.
The Thursday launch marks the second time the country fired off a short-range missile in just under a week, the first of which broke a testing pause that lasted more than 500 days.
Neither test ended the country’s self-imposed moratorium on testing longer-range weapons that could target the continental US, which has lasted since November 2017, but they do show that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s patience with nuclear diplomacy is wearing thin.
In February, Trump and Kim met in Hanoi, Vietnam, to try to make a deal on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but the summit ended early after both sides made demands the other side couldn’t accept. It was the latest and greatest failure in the year-long process — and experts say Kim is trying to signal that he’s just about had enough.
“North Korea has managed to signal its displeasure to Washington and Seoul without crossing any red lines with the broader international community,” Andrew Yeo, a North Korea expert at the Catholic University of America, told me.
The missile test is clearly a message for Trump
North Korea has historically used weapons tests for two main purposes: 1) to improve its military capabilities, as any country would, and 2) to send political messages to the United States and its allies, mainly South Korea and Japan.
Pyongyang officially said last week’s missile test was solely for the military’s benefit. “The recent drill conducted by our army is nothing more than part of the regular military training, and it has neither targeted anyone nor led to an aggravation of situation in the region,” a North Korean foreign ministry official said in a statement in the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
That explanation may have been plausible after the first test, but it’s much less convincing after a second in such a short period of time.
It’s certainly possible that these tests serve a military purpose. But experts say they’re also about something else: Kim trying to showcase his displeasure with the US in the most dramatic way he can right now.
“North Korea has an incentive to ratchet up provocations,” said David Kim, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center in Washington. He noted that Kim Jong Un left Hanoi embarrassed after failing to secure any tangible concessions from the Trump administration. The US and South Korea are also currently engaged in military exercises North Korea finds provocative. And on top of that, the US tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) earlier this month.
All of those things put together may have made Kim feel it was time to send a signal that North Korea wasn’t going to be pushed around.
There were also some inter-Korean considerations. The tests came just four hours before South Korean President Moon Jae-in gave a major televised interview — which also happened to be on the two-year anniversary of his election win. Plus, Trump’s special representative for North Korea talks, Stephen Biegun, is currently in South Korea to chat with his counterparts.
Even so, North Korea is likely to get away with Thursday’s test
After last week’s missile test, Trump tweeted that Kim “does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!”
And on Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signaled that the Trump administration is basically fine with these short-range missile tests, as long as there are no tests of ICBMs:
Q: Does North Korea's launch violate Kim's moratorium on missile tests?— William Gallo (@GalloVOA) May 5, 2019
POMPEO: "We’ll have to take a look. We know our objective. The moratorium was focused, very focused, on intercontinental missile systems, the ones that threaten the United States for sure." pic.twitter.com/vb1oWcodDZ
That effectively gives Kim the green light to test any and all missiles short of an ICBM.
It’s dangerous messaging, as it allows North Korea to continue to improve its weapons arsenal and raise regional tensions — all while negotiations are supposed to be taking place about reducing its weapons arsenal and improving regional tensions.
That could make it harder to strike a deal by year’s end, which is the deadline North Korea has set. If that’s the case, Pyongyang says it would restart testing ICBMs — which would only make the situation worse.
Although these two recent missile tests on their own aren’t necessarily a sign of a total breakdown in US-North Korean nuclear talks, they’re definitely a sign the talks are going very, very poorly.