On 27 February, the (North) Korean People’s Army (KPA) Strategic Rocket Forces fired four ballistic missiles from mobile launchers into the Sea of Japan. The firings began at 17:42 local time from Kittaeryŏng, Kangwŏn Province, where similar test launches have occurred in the past. The missiles, most likely Scud variants (Hwasŏng-5/6), can strike most of the South Korean landmass. Two more missiles, probably “extended” Scud variants, also were flight-tested in the morning of 3 March; these can probably strike all of the South.
Some analysts were puzzled that the missile tests occurred shortly after the first inter-Korean family reunions in over three years and during the multinational Key Resolve military exercise and U.S.-South Korea joint and combined Foal Eagle field exercises. Some may interpret this to mean that the North Korean government is divided and unstable, or that Kim Jong-un is not firmly in control, perhaps feeling compelled to take risky actions to placate hardliners in the military. However, this is likely not the case.
There are six reasons to fire missiles, not all mutually exclusive. First, effective design and development requires test firing before mass production can occur. South Korean Defence Ministry analysts initially believed the missiles could have been new extended-range surface-to-ship missiles, but upon further analysis seem to have concluded they were Scud variants. In that case, the missiles were not fired for development purposes. However, it is not inconceivable that a new anti-ship missile or other short-range ballistic missile system under development could have been launched in the shadow of the Scud flight tests as part of a North Korean “denial and deception” effort.
The second reason to fire missiles is for quality control. It is common practice for all militaries occasionally to take a weapon off the shelf to see if it works and how it works. Certainly, the KPA will review system performance for quality control purposes following a live-fire test. This includes hardware, software, and command-and-control systems.
The third reason is for training. The personnel who operate the systems rarely get an opportunity to participate in a live-fire ballistic missile exercise. The KPA is finishing up its winter training cycle and the Strategic Rocket Forces train just as all military units do. They practice. They conduct command-and-control exercises; they drive the mobile launchers around so the soldiers can learn to operate the systems. Sometimes they fuel up the missiles and fire them off. These missile firings also were part of a military exercise.
The fourth reason is to send a political message. This is unavoidable – whether as key purpose or by-product – when Pyongyang decides to fire ballistic missiles. The fifth reason is to fire missiles at enemy targets during a conflict, which was not the case here. Finally, flight tests can be utilised as advertisements for foreign buyers or they can provide performance data for current clients. North Korea has marketed its Scud variants since the 1980s when it sold them to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Since then, the market has shrunk for Pyongyang: the risks to buyers are very high given that North Korean arms exports are banned under UN Security Council resolutions. While Pyongyang almost certainly would provide clients with flight performance data, this would likely not be a sufficient motivation to conduct the flight tests.
That brings us to the political dimension – my reason number four – which is made more complicated because there are multiple audiences and intended messages. The first audience is domestic, which is probably the most important although most outsiders fail to recognise this. Even though North Korean state media have not reported the launches, senior party and military officials are aware of them. The first round of launches occurred during the 8th Conference of Ideological Workers of the Korean Workers Party in Pyongyang. During the conference, Korean Workers Party First Secretary Kim Jong-un gave a long speech that received extensive coverage in North Korean media. This was an important showcase event and the missile firings in the shadow of the conference will be read internally as a sign that the leadership is strong and has great resolve in standing up to foreign enemies.
The test firings also deliver a political message to China, about a week after Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin paid a four-day visit to Pyongyang and just days before China’s National People’s Congress convenes. The message to Beijing might conceivably be that while the North will follow its advice on trying to improve relations with Seoul and Washington, this does not apply to military capabilities, including the nuclear deterrent. For Pyongyang, possessing nuclear and missile capabilities enables North Korea to engage with others – especially China – as an equal partner.
The message North Korea is sending to South Korea is that Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities must be decoupled from other inter-Korean issues. Seoul insisted that Pyongyang not link demands to cancel the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military exercises in order to hold the family reunions; Pyongyang is turning the tables, telling Seoul that the reunions do not mean Pyongyang has gone soft on the nuclear question. Of course, the missile launches also deliver a redundant deterrent signal to the South Korean government and military.
The message to the U.S. is of deterrence and defiance. Some question why the missile tests would occur during the U.S.-led Key Resolve exercise, since they could increase the intensity of displeasure in Washington just as Pyongyang is signalling its willingness to return to the Six-Party Talks. But from a strategic military perspective this is a good time for the flight tests. First, the KPA can monitor the reaction (if observable) of the United Nations Command (UNC) when it is partially “stood-up” during Key Resolve; secondly, the tests create another opportunity, albeit redundant, to remind all involved as to what could happen in a second Korean war.
Finally, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle paradoxically created a good opportunity for a North Korean missile flight test because the U.S., and the multilateral nature of the UNC, act as powerful constraints on the South Korean military. Since the signing of the Armistice in July 1953, North Korea repeatedly has executed limited attacks and acts of war, most recently in 2010 when a North Korean submarine torpedoed the Ch’ŏnan and the KPA fired artillery at Yŏnp’yŏng Island.
Washington’s national interest and doctrine in North East Asia are focused on extended deterrence and stability. The paradox is that concerns over stability and escalation can dampen the deterrence value of a potential retaliatory response.
Many senior officers in the South Korean (ROK) military are itching to settle scores after the catastrophes of 2010. The widespread rumour is that the South Korean military wishes to inflict disproportionate punishment by striking back “100 to 1”, as the phrase goes, the next time the KPA lashes out at the South. Whether this would end North Korean provocations or be a grave miscalculation is subject to debate; however, the risk of escalation in such a scenario is too much for Washington to accept. The U.S. political and military leaderships are unwilling to fight a full-scale war in Korea over the shooting down of an aircraft, the sinking of a ship, the insertion of KPA Special Forces for limited operations, or firing artillery on a fishing village. Pyongyang clearly knows this.
The ROK military has demonstrated its counter-strike capability by deploying new precision-guided cruise missiles and ballistic missiles as part of its program to deploy a “kill chain” to defend against KPA missile attacks. In December 2015, the U.S. is scheduled to transfer operational control (OPCON) of ROK forces that currently would come under the head of Combined Forces Command, who is always a U.S. general. OPCON transfer could be delayed, but if the transition is made, ROK generals would be less constrained – or at least the KPA almost certainly believes they would be less constrained – compared to the current arrangement. If the ROK military is more committed than its U.S. ally to hitting back hard, this could enhance deterrence; but if deterrence fails, then escalation to an intense conflict could occur very quickly.
A full-scale war in Korea would be catastrophic for the peninsula and the region, and it very well could mean the demise of the DPRK as a sovereign state. Pyongyang repeatedly has demonstrated its risk-accepting behaviour, but the leadership is not suicidal. The restraints placed on the ROK by the UNC and Key Resolve, and by the U.S. under the bilateral alliance structure provide a “safer” opportunity for Pyongyang to conduct a live-fire missile exercise. Under the watchful eyes of the U.S. and the others, the ROK military is unlikely to interpret flight tests as a missile attack or use the missile launches as a pretext to activate its “kill chain” counter-attack.