The missile tests of last week sparked substantial discussion within the North Korean-watching community, with substantial disagreement about what—if anything—should be done about them. As Chatham House rules pertained, we simply report some of the competing positions without naming names. Our own view is that the missile tests should be denounced as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. However, the level of rhetoric surrounding the test was much more muted than last year, there is some movement in North-South relations, and good reasons to believe that domestic factors were in play. Both the US and South Korea took muted positions on the launches, although the DoD spokesman slipped on North Korean obligations under current UNSC resolutions. In lieu of better alternatives, “benign neglect” was probably the best policy.
First, what happened? The four short-range missiles launched on Thursday came from a site about 40 kilometers south of Wonsan and went northeast into the East Sea. South Korean defense ministry officials estimated the range of the tests at 200 kilometers, which probably makes them modified Scuds (Hwasong-5 or -6) or upgraded KN-02’s, a short-range mobile missile. Government officials also reported the firing of four “projectiles” in the same vicinity on February 21, at the time of the family reunions. Ranges on these earlier tests were estimated at 150-160 kilometers; again, these could be Scuds, KN-02’s, or an altogether new design.
Unannounced missile tests are not a good thing, but their political and military significance depends on context. Last year, tests and threats of tests took place following the “satellite” launch and third nuclear test. This year, the political setting is less confrontational; indeed, we were surprised that the North Koreans—after vacillating—decided to go ahead with the family reunions despite the fact that their “proposal” to cancel the joint exercises was rightly ignored. In addition, Kyodo reports that Japan and the DPRK may be moving toward the first bilateral inter-governmental contacts in years.
We also have to understand that the North Korean military, which has seen a secular erosion of its conventional capabilities, needs to maintain some deterrent capability. Forward-deployed artillery and short- and intermediate-range missiles are the cheapest deterrent they can buy. As Dan Pinkston points out in a typically-thorough post for the International Crisis Group, the political significance of the tests should not be over-read: militaries test systems to assure quality, for training purposes and as a component of exercises (which these appeared to be). Less benignly, the missiles might also have been tested for development purposes or to provide flight-test information to clients. But as Josh Pollack shows in his outstanding survey for the Non-Proliferation Review, the sales market has shrunk dramatically since its heyday in the 1980s.
Sometimes the most obvious explanation should be taken as the most plausible: the tests and several incursions across the Northern Limit Line constituted low-level signals in the face of the US-ROK joint exercises: “we are here.” Although not reported domestically, the tests no doubt had a domestic military audience in mind.
We had one small complaint with how the issue was initially handled by the US. Pentagon spokesman U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren got his talking points wrong when he said that the missiles were “short-range Scud missile[s] which they are allowed to test.”
This is incorrect. After the “satellite” launch of December 2012, UNSC 2087 sought to clear up any ambiguity with respect to whether the launch was allowed under previous UNSC resolutions. The North Koreans had claimed—disingenuously in our view—that the test was a satellite launch that was permitted under the Outer Space Treaty. UNSC 2087 (para. 2) “Demands that the DPRK not proceed with any further launches using ballistic missile technology, and comply with resolutions 1718 (2006) and 1874 (2009) by suspending all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launches.” The Outer Space Treaty does permit exploration of outer space “without discrimination,” but also “in accordance with international law.” There is an ongoing debate about how extensive the powers of the UNSC are in over-riding rights states may have under other treaties, such as the Outer Space Treaty; we covered the different views of Dan Joyner and Jared Genser here. But we side with Genser that UNSC powers are expansive, that UNSC resolutions override other legal rights the North Koreans might legitimately claim, and that the tests are thus in violation of those resolutions. The initial statement was later corrected.