North Korea provocatively launched a ballistic missile over Japan Aug. 29, dramatically escalating tensions and demonstrating that it has no interest in restraint.
The launch, the fourth in a matter of only a few days, followed statements by President Donald Trump claiming that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is starting to respect the US and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserting that North Korea has shown "restraint" by halting its missile tests. America's lead diplomat even suggested that there might be a path to dialogue.
Evidence indicates that Trump and Tillerson may have misread North Korea's behavior. "This is not the action of a country that is interested in showing restraint or in creating a glide-path to dialogue, at least not on our terms," James Schoff, an East Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Washington Post.
North Korea's Hwasong-14 missile. Photo from KCNA
Not only is North Korea apparently frustrated with the activities of the US and its allies, but it may also be determined to set a precedent for new missile testing.
The US and South Korea began the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises Aug. 21. The North perceives joint military exercises as a precursor to an armed invasion of North Korean territory.
"This is a clear indication of the attempt to mount a preemptive attack on the North," a commentary in the Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling party, argued Aug. 27. North Korea is particularly concerned with the preemptive strike elements of Operation Plan 5015, which the North claims is a key part of this year's exercises.
"The warmongers at home and abroad are working hard to master and perfect the performance procedures and the actual maneuverability of the "beheading operation" and "secret operation" under OPLAN 5015," the North Korean state media report explained.
Ulchi-Freedom Guardian 2016. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ken Scar.
"The DPRK will continue to strengthen its defensive capability with nuclear force, as long as US … does not stop military drills on the doorstep of the DPRK," North Korean ambassador to the UN Han Tae Song explained Aug. 29. "US pressure and provocative acts only justify the DPRK's measure to strengthen its self-defense capabilities."
North Korea is also irritated with the regular high-level meetings between senior US military officials and their South Korean counterparts.
"It is a very ill-boding development that timed to coincide with the exercises, the US Pacific Command chief, the US Strategic Command head, the Missile Defense Agency director, and other US high-ranking military officers flew into South Korea to hold confabs on the DPRK," North Korean state media explained.
Furthermore, the North is aware of allied efforts to boost their offensive and defensive capabilities in response to the growing North Korean threat. South Korea conducted its own missile tests last week, testing weaponry designed to penetrate North Korea's underground and hardened facilities, and Japan just deployed a collection of new missile interceptors.
— Ankit Panda (@nktpnd) August 29, 2017
There is also a strong possibility, as this has long been a strategic objective, that North Korea is trying to drive a wedge between the US and its allies in Asia.
The latest missile launch may also clear the way for a more realistic weapons testing program, helping North Korea develop combat-capable missiles to boost its deterrence capabilities.
"There is a technical imperative for conducting this test," Mike Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told WaPo. "They want to be able to look at reentry dynamics and how it performs on a more normal trajectory." North Korea will need to ultimately move ships into the area to get telemetry data, but this is a first step.
If the consequences for North Korea's actions are limited, Pyongyang may assume that the benefits are worth the risks and conduct additional tests of this nature in the future, possibly for its new intercontinental ballistic missile.
Ulchi-Freedom Guardian 2015. DoD Photo by Staff Sgt. Steven Schneider.
"In a way, it's kind of a trial balloon," Elleman said. "If we overfly Japan, what happens? If the blowback isn't too significant, they will feel more comfortable with launching a Hwasong-14 to a good distance to validate its performance on a normal trajectory."
North Korea typically tests its missiles by lofting them, and then analysts calculate their theoretical range were the missiles to be fired along a normal trajectory. North Korea needs more reliable data if it intends to field a viable nuclear deterrent. When North Korea threatened to fire missiles into waters around Guam earlier this month, some observers suspected that North Korea might be trying to set a precedent for launches over Japan.
"This sets a new dangerous precedent of overflying Japan and launching into the western Pacific," Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, posted on Twitter after North Korea's threats.
While the North may have deescalated earlier, it does not appear to have backed down. The country appears as committed to its strategic ambitions as ever.