SEOUL, South Korea — The language from North Korea on Wednesday is as familiar as it is chilling, a declaration to the world to expect more missile tests. But there are important clues about North Korea’s ambitious push to send its missiles farther into the Pacific Ocean in an attempt to make them an accepted part of life in the region, as leader Kim Jong Un expands the weapons program he sees as his country’s best chance of survival against encircling enemies.

By firing a missile over Japan and putting the Asia-Pacific, including Guam and its major U.S. military base, on notice for more tests, North Korea may have won itself greater military space in a region dominated by enemies. It’s still too early to see if Kim can create new rules without crossing a line that the United States won’t tolerate.

Here’s a look at the possible meaning of Kim’s comments carried by state media after North Korea sent a missile potentially capable of carrying a nuclear bomb over Japan on Tuesday:


WHAT NORTH KOREA SAID

Because North Korea’s “current ballistic rocket launching drill … is the first step of the military operation … in the Pacific and a meaningful prelude to containing Guam, (which is an) advanced base of invasion, he (Kim) said that it is necessary to positively push forward the work for putting the strategic force on a modern basis by conducting more ballistic rocket launching drills with the Pacific as a target in the future.”

WHAT IT MAY MEAN

This refers to North Korea’s attempt to strengthen its weapons capabilities and use them to test its bargaining power against the United States. To this end, North Korea is signaling that it may soon turn the Pacific Ocean into its own ballistic missile training ground and make its launches over Japan an accepted norm.

This might have been Kim’s plan all along as he sought what to do next after North Korea’s weapons development reached a point where it could test intercontinental ballistic missiles meant to reach deep into the U.S. mainland. North Korea threatened earlier this month to fire a salvo of Hwasong-12s — the same missile it sent over Japan on Tuesday — to create “enveloping fire” near Guam.

The U.S. territory of Guam is home to key military bases and strategic long-range bombers that North Korea finds threatening. Still, it’s unclear whether the North will ever act on its threat to fire missiles at the “advanced base of invasion.” This could risk triggering a military retaliation from the United States if something goes wrong. But the threat and the subsequent launch Tuesday may have won North Korea space to stage more weapons tests because anything less than targeting Guam would draw a sigh of relief from the United States.

“There were times when even a short-range ballistic missile launch drew a heated response and sanctions from the international community, but the world didn’t do anything about North Korea’s short-range ballistic missile launches on Saturday” ahead of Tuesday’s longer launch, said Du Hyeogn Cha, a visiting scholar at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “North Korea will try to do the same with midrange ballistic missile launches in the Pacific, making them part of the new normal.”


WHAT NORTH KOREA SAID

Kim Jong Un “sternly” said that “the drill conducted by the (North’s) Strategic Force is a curtain-raiser of its resolute countermeasures” against joint military exercises being conducted by the U.S. and South Korea.

WHAT IT MAY MEAN

Before Tuesday’s launch, it appeared North Korea was backing away from its threat to fire missiles toward Guam. Some took this as a sign that it was willing to talk and wouldn’t let things get too tense during the annual joint military drills between Washington and Seoul that run through Thursday.

Tuesday’s events killed such optimism. Most experts now say North Korea will likely continue its torrid pace of weapons tests until it perfects ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missile systems, and that it probably won’t show serious interest in talks before then.

Kim is clearly seeking a real nuclear deterrent against the United States and likely believes that will strengthen his negotiating position when North Korea returns to talks. And if it does, North Korea will likely demand a halt of the U.S.-South Korean drills and perhaps the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula in any talks involving a moratorium on its missile launches, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert from Seoul’s Dongguk University.

North Korea condemns the annual U.S.-South Korea war games as rehearsals for an invasion, and Washington and Seoul faced calls to postpone or downsize this year’s drills to ease tensions.

There might also be a simpler reason Kim attributed Tuesday’s launch to the drills.

China, North Korea’s only major ally, has been calling for a “dual suspension” in which the North stops its nuclear and missile tests and Washington and Seoul halt their military exercises to lower tensions and lead to talks. By publicly linking the launch to the drills, Kim is attempting reduce the possibility that Beijing supports more punitive measures against North Korea at the United Nations over the launch, Cha said.


WHAT NORTH KOREA SAID

Kim Jong Un said his nation has drawn a lesson “again that it should show action, not talk, to the U.S. imprudently denying the (North’s) initiative measure for easing the extreme tension” and stressed that it will continue to watch America’s demeanor toward the North and decide its future actions accordingly.

WHAT IT MAY MEAN

The problem here is that Washington won’t be very interested in displaying the kind of “demeanor” that North Korea is likely to want.

A U.S. military solution to North Korea’s missile tests is also unlikely. Making a highly difficult intercept of North Korean missiles would be a tough call because failure would seriously dent the credibility of the expensive U.S. missile defense system.

So the question is whether North Korea will put some checks on itself as it seeks to expand its weapons tests in the Pacific. Some experts believe the next North Korean launches will be bolder unless Washington makes serious concessions.

But Hwang Ildo, a professor at Seoul’s Korea National Diplomatic Academy, disagrees, saying North Korea probably won’t risk infuriating the United States. He says the North Korean threat toward Guam is more about winning greater freedom of military action than about deterring flyovers of U.S. bombers or stopping the U.S.-South Korean war games.

“The North’s intention was to push the boundaries of its military presence farther from the Korean Peninsula and Japan and into the wider Pacific, and they practically drew the line at Guam with their missile threat,” he said.