EXPLAINER: N. Korean missile tests follow same old playbook

SEOUL, South Korea — New U.S. president, same old North Korean playbook.

But this time, there’s a twist.

Two months after President Joe Biden took office, North Korea is again turning to weapons tests to wrest outside concessions. But while launches in past years were big and aimed at drawing a big response, the tests welcoming Biden have, so far, been relatively small. That indicates Washington has a window of engagement before North Korea pursues bigger provocations.

This week, North Korea’s neighbors reported the country fired four short-range missiles into the sea in its first missile launches in about a year. The launches, two of them Thursday banned under U.N. resolutions, come days after the North said it had rebuffed dialogue offers by the Biden administration, citing what it called U.S. hostility.

North Korea wants the United States to lift major economic sanctions on Pyongyang while tolerating it as a nuclear weapons state. Because the Biden administration is unlikely do that anytime soon, some experts say North Korea may stage bigger provocations, like a long-range missile test or a nuclear bomb detonation, in coming months.

Here’s look at North Korea’s recent missile launches and their motives.


North Korea has a long history of performing major weapons tests around the time new governments take power in the United States and South Korea.

In February 2017, less than a month after President Donald Trump took office, North Korea test-launched a mid-range missile using solid fuel in what observers called an advance in weapon mobility. Later in 2017, four days after current South Korean President Moon Jae-in was inaugurated, North Korea fired what it called a newly developed, nuclear-capable intermediate-range missile.

In 2009, North Korea conducted a long-range rocket launch and a nuclear test within the first four months of President Barack Obama’s first term in office.

This week’s weapons tests by North Korea largely appear to follow the playbook, but experts believe the country has so far avoided too serious a provocation as the Biden administration hasn’t completed its comprehensive policy review on North Korea.

The four missiles fired by North Korea this week were all short-range and don’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. mainland. According to South Korea’s assessment, the first two weapons launched Sunday were believed to be cruise missiles. But Japan said North Korea on Thursday launched ballistic missiles, more provocative weapons whose tests are banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“The basic pattern isn’t much different. But while North Korea in the past focused on showing off its maximum capability when a new government came in the United States, I feel the North is trying to control the level of (its provocation),” said Du Hyeogn Cha, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.


In January, about 10 days before Biden took office, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a policy speech that he would enlarge his nuclear arsenal and beef up fighting capability to cope with a hostile U.S. policy and military threats. He also pressed South Korea to suspend regular military drills with the United States if it truly wants better ties.

Earlier in March, when U.S. and South Korean militaries pressed ahead with their springtime drills, Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, warned the United States to “refrain from causing a stink” if it wants to “sleep in peace” for the next four years.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Washington reached out to Pyongyang starting in mid-February, but Pyongyang hasn’t responded. Blinken still slammed North Korea’s human rights conditions and nuclear ambitions when he visited Seoul with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last week. North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said her country will keep ignoring such U.S. offers because of what she called U.S. hostility.

“It’s like North Korea is putting Kim Yo Jong’s threats into action as she said the United States can’t sleep in peace if it doesn’t accept its demands,” said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst for the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

While the North’s latest weapons launches were seen as a response to the South Korea-U.S. drills and Blinken and Austin’s trip to Seoul, Moon Seong Mook said North Korea eventually wants “the United States to lift sanctions while letting it maintain its nuclear capability.”



Experts say it’s highly unlikely for the Biden administration to back down and make concessions in the face of North Korea’s short-range missile launches. Biden, who has criticized Kim “a thug,” also won’t likely sit down for one-on-one talks with Kim unless working-level officials confirm North Korea’s sincerity in denuclearization.

This could lead North Korea to launch bigger weapons tests in coming months, especially if it isn’t satisfied with the Biden government’s North Korea policy review expected to be publicized soon, experts say.

“Biden won’t likely do a Trump-style ‘reality show summit’ with Kim. Kim’s agony in the next four years will be subsequently deepened and his nuclear gambling cannot help continuing,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at South Korea’s Korea University.

A possible high-profile provocation by North Korea could be conducting long-range missile and nuclear tests, which Kim Jong Un suspended when he began engaging diplomatically with Washington.

After a torrid run of long-range missile and nuclear tests in 2016-17, Kim Jong Un claimed to have achieved the ability to attack the U.S. homeland with nuclear missiles. But outside experts said North Korea hasn’t mastered a few remaining technologies, such protecting its warheads during the harsh conditions of atmospheric reentry to have functioning intercontinental ballistic missiles.

But one unlikely possibility is U.N. Security Council sanctions more punishing than the current ones. China, the North’s major diplomatic ally and economic lifeline, wields veto power on the council. Given its current tensions with Washington, China may not easily agree on more sanctions even if North Korea engages in long-range or nuclear tests, Cha said.