North Korean Missile Tests Continue, Unabated | Opinion

U.S., South Korean, and Japanese officials frequently employ the word "provocative" whenever North Korea conducts a missile test, regardless of what type of missile was actually launched. The truth, however, is that Pyongyang has flown too many missiles into the sky that the tests have become quite regular. What government officials call "provocative" and "destabilizing" is in fact normalized, even if the world generally disapproves of what North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is doing.

And let's face it, he's doing a lot. Pyongyang has test fired about 40 missiles in 2022, the highest number of launches in a single year. Five ballistic missiles have been sent on various trajectories in a 10-day stretch. The most recent, an Oct. 4 test of the Hwasong-12, an intermediate range ballistic missile, flew over Japan, the first time a North Korean projectile traversed Japanese territory since 2017. According to government estimates, the distance of the Oct. 4 test exceeded anything else the North has tested in the decades since, traveling nearly 4,600 kilometers before splashing into the Pacific Ocean.

Like their South Korean neighbors, Japan has gotten inured to this kind of activity from the North. But this week's launch was different than the others, forcing Tokyo to activate an early-warning system for residents in the northern Aomori and Hokkaido prefectures. The fact the Hwasong-12 was nowhere near a populated area and was flying higher than the International Space Station didn't make it any less worrisome for some Japanese in the north, who received alerts on their phones and had some train services suspended. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was understandably outraged at the incident, with his office releasing a lengthy press statement denouncing the launch as "totally unacceptable," as well as a violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions.

Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo were quick to respond with their own military exercises. U.S. and Japanese fighter jets engaged in joint maneuvers over the Sea of Japan, while U.S. F-16s and South Korean F-15Ks participated in a precision targeting drill in the Yellow Sea in the hope Pyongyang got the message: If need be, we have the military capability, capacity, and training to retaliate rapidly and forcefully. South Korea also scrambled 30 fighter and bomber jets as Pyongyang performed its own air drills dozens of kilometers from the militarized border.

The whole episode feels like an over-watched re-run, where the plot has been memorized, the characters are well-established, and the ending is predictable. The familiar cycle goes something like this: North Korea tests a missile, usually when Washington is already asleep. After the news reaches the State Department, U.S. officials scramble to publish a canned statement condemning the action as a danger to the region's security. Senior U.S. policymakers, typically the national security adviser or secretary of state (sometimes both), get on the phone with their South Korean and Japanese allies to reassure Seoul and Tokyo about Washington's security commitment. The next day, the U.S. delegation at the United Nations calls for an urgent Security Council meeting to discuss the latest launch, even though any significant action will be blocked by Russia and China. The Treasury Department enacts more sanctions, on top of the mountain of sanctions that have already been instituted against the North Korean economy. And after a few weeks or even months, the whole process starts over again.

Pedestrians walk under a large video screen
Pedestrians walk under a large video screen showing images of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un during a news update in Tokyo on Oct. 4, 2022, after North Korea launched a missile early in the day which prompted an evacuation alert when it flew over northeastern Japan. RICHARD A. BROOKS/AFP via Getty Images

The cycle has repeated itself again and again over the last quarter-century. Throughout, successive U.S. presidents have tried and failed to solve what has proven to be an unsolvable problem. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all tried carrots and sticks, sometimes separately but oftentimes in coordination. Threats of military force have been brandished as well. The Clinton administration was actively considering military options against Pyongyang's nuclear infrastructure in 1994 (a strike the Pentagon estimated at the time would result in a second Korean War killing as many 52,000 U.S. troops and a half-million South Korean forces). Fortunately, diplomacy prevailed, with Washington and Pyongyang coming to an agreement that traded U.S. aid, moves toward normalization, and security assurances for the dismantling of North Korea's reactors—until this, too, fell apart.

Bush, Obama, and Trump had their own bouts of diplomacy with the Kim regime as well. One of them, Obama, even came away with a placeholder deal called the "Leap Day" agreement, which essentially bartered a consistent supply of U.S. fuel oil for a moratorium on North Korean nuclear and missile tests, in addition to the return of nuclear inspections. But because U.S. and North Korean diplomats could never settle on exact wording, the two sides had different interpretations of what and wasn't permitted. The arrangement collapsed a little over a month later, when the Kim regime completed a satellite test the Obama administration viewed as a deliberate violation.

As time has gone by, the North Korea problem has congealed into a hardened, seemingly unbreakable form. Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists estimated that Pyongyang possesses 20 to 30 assembled nuclear warheads, but has enough fissile material to build between 45 and 55 more (the U.S., in comparison, has over 5,400 warheads). Despite repeated statements from Biden administration officials about an interest in negotiations without preconditions, Kim Jong-un isn't prepared to talk and doesn't even appear to be interested in talking.

As the old expression goes, "It takes two to tango." Unfortunately, there have been multiple instances when one side is willing to get on the dance floor, only for the other to protest the music. North Korea wants to be recognized as a nuclear power; the U.S. still wants North Korea to rid itself of its nuclear deterrent. Unless and until one of those positions changes, a resolution will be elusive.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at the Chicago Tribune and Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.