Testing Times: North Korea’s missile tests

North Korea faces considerable challenges in all of these elements, although Pyongyang is seeking to address them. Given the hyperbole surrounding all tests however, they are often seen through a lens of provocation and remain poorly understood.

North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch marks a high point for Kim Jong-un who has overseen more missile tests than any previous leader. Deterrence, however, requires more than just nuclear missiles. It also requires effective communication and the credibility of intent, which is underpinned by a force’s ability to both conduct and survive a nuclear strike.

Stated intent

International and domestic rhetoric surrounding North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes is increasingly heated, yet North Korea’s legal system can provide some clarity on the country’s intent. The 2013 Law “Consolidating the position of nuclear weapons state for self defence” has two key articles.

Article 4 emphasises the defensive nature of North Korea’s deterrent, stating nuclear weapons can only be used “to repel invasion or attack from a hostile nuclear weapons state and make retaliatory strikes”; while Article 5 outlines that Pyongyang will not attack non-nuclear weapons states, unless they are part of a nuclear-alliance. This clearly applies to South Korea and Japan; both are protected by US extended deterrence guarantees and host conventional US forces.

Along with not ruling out ‘no first use’, there is also considerable uncertainty surrounding Pyongyang’s concepts of ‘invasion and attack’ and whether they overlap with another scenario where Pyongyang has indicated it would use nuclear weapons – encroachment of its sovereignty. This ambiguity is an essential part of an asymmetric escalation posture which may be advantageous when deterring superior conventional- and nuclear-armed adversaries.

Building a credible capability

While North Korea may issue nuclear threats to non-nuclear neighbours, US extended deterrence challenges the credibility of its nuclear deterrent by questioning whether Pyongyang could use its small arsenal and survive.

Herein lies the logic of the Hwasong-14 and other ICBM programmes. Similar to how Russia and Pakistan use their ‘strategic’ arsenals to ensure a cap on (and enhance the credibility of) any regional nuclear exchange, North Korea is seeking to add an additional tier to its arsenal. In establishing an ICBM capability, North Korea’s posture will also incorporate two complementary elements: asymmetric escalation for regional targets, and minimum deterrence for longer-range threats. The currently small arsenal of long-range weapons is designed to make the US think twice before attacking, and may partially explain claims of a North Korean ‘H bomb’.

Yet small arsenals pose problems of their own, including incentives for pre-emptive strikes with either nuclear or conventional weapons. The Hwasong-14 is an important, but still incremental, step in the North’s programme, and it is unclear how large an arsenal North Korea desires, its eventual capabilities, or the longer-term impact on its posture. In the immediate-term, however, the North has already demonstrated an ability to deter attacks via its conventional and chemical weapons.

North Korea is also increasing the number and survivability of its nuclear forces, and thus their potential for retaliatory strikes. The road mobility of its current liquid-fuelled Scud-based missile force already affords considerable protection, and the adoption of solid-fuelled land- and submarine-based Pukkuksong missiles will also result in fewer launch signatures and greater survivability.

To further protect its nuclear forces, Pyongyang is also bolstering its air defences. The importance of this is emphasised by the fact that anti-air weapons were the only weapon-types mentioned in the report adopted at the Seventh Party Congress.

These efforts are contributing to the development of a credible nuclear deterrent.

Imperfect communication

Deterrence requires capability and intent be communicated to allies and adversaries. With limited diplomatic relations the North’s missile tests are an important, but flawed, signalling mechanism.

2016 saw an unprecedented number of launches, a trend which continued into 2017. Not all systems were the same however, with three broad categories evident: ‘established’ scud-based systems; ‘operational but untested’ systems (i.e. the Musudan); and ‘developmental’ (including the solid-fuelled Pukkuksong family).

From this, it is apparent that Pyongyang is signalling more than just its displeasure. These include a new tolerance of failure in the pursuit of future development, and Pyongyang’s continuing resolve to develop new and survivable capabilities. Crucially too, as justified by Articles 4 and 5 of the 2013 Nuclear Law, they display the readiness of the North’s war-fighting capabilities and its intolerance to the build-up of US forces in Japan and South Korea.

While these largely point to enhancing the credibility of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent, tests are nonetheless an imperfect form of communication. With frequent tests, signals are becoming increasingly ‘crowded out’ and all tests viewed as provocations by a progressively impatient US.


As one of the few remaining means of communication, missile tests remain a key mode of expression for Pyongyang. The region, however, is caught in something of a security dilemma. As Pyongyang addresses the weaknesses in its nuclear capabilities, it raises increasing concern amongst its neighbours. In a pattern of action and reaction, calls for increasingly severe responses have become prevalent. These largely ignore the fact that Allied responses are also seen as provocations, especially by a regime that values ‘saving face’ and dignity.

The challenges of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes are not going away anytime soon. Understanding that its tests go beyond simple provocations will be crucial to understanding and managing the North as its posture continues to evolve.

Karl Dewey is a Proliferation Editor for Jane’s Intelligence Review.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.


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