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It's Not Rocket Science: DPRK's Missile Test Aimed at Getting Trump's Attention

© REUTERS / KCNA/HandoutA view of the test-fire of Pukguksong-2 guided by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the spot, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang February 13, 2017
A view of the test-fire of Pukguksong-2 guided by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the spot, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang February 13, 2017 - Sputnik International
On Sunday, Pyongyang confirmed that it had carried out a successful test of an intermediate-range nuclear-capable ballistic missile. Speaking to Sputnik, Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, explained that North Korea's leadership is trying to send a message to the Trump administration that it is ready for talks.

Sunday's test, which coincided with the Japanese Prime Minister's official visit to the United States, was supervised by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, according to state news agency KCNA. The missile, reported to have been a Pukkuksong-2 intermediate-range missile, can carry a nuclear payload, and has an estimated operational range of up to 2,000 km. Launched from an airbase in the western province of North Pyongan, the missile was reported to have traveled about 480 km before plunging into the Sea of Japan. Pukkuksong-2 is a variant of the submarine-launched Pukkuksong-1, whose testing began in 2014.

North Korea's neighbors warned Pyongyang that they saw the latest missile launch as a provocation, and a violation of a UN Security Council resolution prohibiting it from carrying out ballistic missile tests. In recent years, the international community has leveled a series of sanctions against North Korea over its missile and nuclear program, but the country has moved ahead with testing anyway, citing the need to defend itself against US and South Korean aggression.

Russia, for its part, condemned Sunday's missile test. Speaking to Sputnik, Duma International Affairs Committee Chairman Leonid Slutsky said that "Pyongyang's unpredictable actions provoke a new spiral of tensions near Russia's borders." However, at the same time, the lawmaker emphasized that piling on more sanctions wouldn't be an effective solution, with expanded political and diplomatic efforts being the best way to return Pyongyang to six-party talks on nuclear disarmament.

Speaking to Radio Sputnik about the missile test, security expert Tong Zhao suggested that contrary to public perceptions, "North Korea has actually refrained from any major military provocations, including missile tests, over the last three months, which sends a signal that North Korea is actually waiting for the Trump administration to clarify its policy toward Pyongyang."

"North Korea is apparently very interested in having a talk with the new administration, but with the upcoming US-South Korean joint military exercises in March, that window of opportunity for diplomatic engagement is quickly closing," Zhao added. 

Accordingly, he explained, "this recent missile test is meant by North Korea to send a 'gentle reminder' to Mr. Trump that North Korea is still waiting, and they hope that this missile test can prompt Trump to seriously reconsider the reengagement option with North Korea."

Musudan-class missiles are displayed during a military parade in honour of the 100th birthday of the late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012 - Sputnik International
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Backing up his argument, Zhao recalled that Pyongyang has publically stated that it also intends to conduct tests of long-range intercontinental ballistic tests, which would pose an actual threat to the US mainland. Therefore, the analyst noted, Sunday's test of an intermediate range missile was a signal from Kim Jong-un to Trump saying "look, we are holding off a much worse missile test; if you refuse to engage with us, we can conduct more, longer-range missile tests."

Asked whether the test may have also been a signal to Japan, given that it took place during Prime Minister Abe's visit to the United States, Zhao said that he found that to be a less likely prospect. The only real source of conflict between Pyongyang and Tokyo, he said, are the US military bases based in Japan.

As for the prospect of the UN imposing additional sanctions against Pyongyang over the test, Zhao suggested that the chances of this occurring are pretty low, given that the test was probably "not provocative enough for the Security Council to take tough measures." With that said, the analyst noted that individual UN members, including the US and other nations, might impose unilateral sanctions against the country.

At the same time, Zhao emphasized that there is actually very little room for effective economic sanctions. "That's why I think we need a radical reconsideration of the general approach to dealing with North Korea. Simply implementing incrementally more and tougher sanctions won't be able to make North Korea change its decision on nuclear and missile programs."

A South Korean protester ties a banner before a rally to denounce deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, in front of the Defense Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, July 8, 2016. - Sputnik International
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As far as the US's plans to deploy THAAD missile defenses in South Korea are concerned, the analyst noted that these systems remain untested in realistic battle conditions. Furthermore, "it's much easier for the North Koreans to increase the number of their missiles than it is for the South Koreans and Americans to deploy enough missile defense interceptors. Simply deploying more missile defense won't provide either South Korea or the US with more security."

Zhao explained that "on the North Korean side, the sole objective of the missile and nuclear program is to achieve a nuclear deterrent. Therefore, if South Korea and the US deploy more missile defense, that will only encourage North Korea to double down on increasing both the quality and the quantity of its offensive missile arsenal. The result will be an arms race between North Korean missiles and South Korean missile defense deployment." 

Therefore, according to the security expert, the only way forward is diplomacy.

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