Opinion: Why this North Korea test is not like the others

Story highlights

  • North Korea appears to have launched a submarine-launched ballistic missile over the weekend
  • Moon says the most recent test shows the regime is working sleeplessly towards greater nuclear capability
  • The launch has antagonized the EU which has been less aggressive than the U.S. on North Korean denuclearization

Katharine H.S. Moon is the inaugural holder of the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies and a senior fellow at the Brookings Center for East Asia Policy Studies. Moon's research includes the U.S.-Korea alliance, politics of East Asia, and inter-Korean relations.

(CNN)North Korea is on a roll. Just four months into 2016, it has tested a nuclear device (its fourth), launched a satellite that uses rocket mechanisms for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS), fired multiple short-range missiles, and now claims the first successful launch test of a submarine-launched-ballistic missile (SLBM) with a flight distance of about 30 kilometers (18 miles).

Only last winter, some experts commented that the two SLBM launch attempts in 2015 revealed that the DPRK had a long way to go to achieve actual technological capability. But the fact that the regime has managed to improve the launch technology so quickly, and for the first time successfully employ solid fuel to fire the SLBM engine signals a nuclear program that is hell-bent on doing things better and faster than expected. This raises the bar for diplomacy of any kind.
    A word of caution. Despite what the DPRK leader, Kim Jong Un boasts, independent experts have not yet verified whether the SLBM test on April 24 was an actual success in terms of flying a desired distance and maintaining mechanical integrity. But even if it were not as successful as Kim claims, the fact that the regime is sleeplessly working toward viable SLBM capability bodes ill for regional and international stability. North Korea already has a serious arsenal of land-based nuclear-capable missiles. Its ambition for SLBMs expresses its desire for a second-strike capability to enhance its nuclear deterrence.
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    The logic is that if an outside power, for example, the United States, whom it regards as Enemy #1, were to launch ICBMs to destroy or damage its land-based weaponry, it could rely on the SLBMs as a second strike against the enemy. The DPRK lacks the capability to hurt the U.S. mainland but could do serious damage to U.S. allies — South Korea and Japan — as well as U.S. military troops and installations in Guam and perhaps Hawaii.

    Raised stakes

    The recent test certainly ups the ante. First, North Korea has slapped the United Nations Security Council again by violating the April 2016 sanctions regime. The Security Council is unlikely to manage another round of difficult negotiations with member states, especially China, to tighten the economic choke on the DPRK.
    Second, gaining solid fuel missile capacity is dangerous because it would boost North Korea's ICBMs technology, making the U.S. mainland a tad closer to reach than before the SLBM launch.
    Third, every test, whether a "success" or failure, is a ultimately a useful act from which North Korea's scientists learn and aim for new or improved weapons systems.
    Fourth, the more nuclear capacity the country has, the harder it is to push for denuclearization even if constructive diplomacy were in play. It will want more in order to give up a little bit of it.
    Fifth, the more capable the North's nuclear capability becomes, the more the U.S., South Korea, and Japan need to adapt their deterrence capability and strategy individually and collectively.

    Playing nuclear games

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    On the other hand, the SLBM launch and accompanying "offer" by the DPRK to halt nuclear tests if the US suspends its annual joint military exercises with South Korea (the recently completed version was the largest ever with 300,000 plus troops) may be a signal that the newly implemented UNSC sanctions are squeezing the regime.
    Second, given that the sanctions can hope to reorient the regime's ambitions away from a more potent arsenal only if China implements the sanctions fully and stays the course for months to come, the SLBM launch could serve as an effective prod to Beijing that its full participation and leadership in the sanctions regime is truly needed in order to keep the peace in its neighborhood. The fact that Beijing ordered 2,000 troops to its border with North Korea in anticipation of the SLBM launch means that Chinese leaders understand the volatility on the Korean peninsula and its potential to blow up into a military confrontation they do not desire.
    In addition, the international community is fed up with the DPRK's nuclear games. For the first time, France and other members of the European Union, most of whom have diplomatic relations with the DPRK, are talking about unilateral sanctions by the EU in response to the SLBM launch.
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    This is a significant development because the EU has avoided antagonizing North Korea. Rather, most EU countries have been steadily maintained the policy of "critical engagement" with North Korea, which involves a longer-term patient perspective to deal with the Kim dynasty as it is and not as many outside wish it to be. That contrasts to the U.S., which from the time of George W. Bush to Barack Obama, has insisted on denuclearization efforts and a turn toward "reform" before substantive engagement and formal diplomatic relations can take place.
    Right now, North Korea may feel high on its SLBM "achievement," but the U.S. and its allies have the upper hand because their chosen tactic is to wait and see how the sanctions play out and to build power in numbers: South Korea, Japan, European allies, Southeast Asian friends, and even China.
    Editor's Note: Katharine H.S. Moon is the inaugural holder of the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies and a senior fellow at the Brookings Center for East Asia Policy Studies. Moon's research includes the U.S.-Korea alliance, politics of East Asia, and inter-Korean relations.