The US must bankrupt North Korea’s war machine

Rocket Man is on another blast tour. Last week, Pyongyang tested an intercontinental “Monster” missile that was reportedly designed to hit any location in the US and overwhelm American missile defenses with multiple warheads. Since the beginning of the year, North Korea has conducted more than a dozen launches — including cruise, rail-based, hypersonic and intermediate-range ballistic missiles — as well as an unsuccessful long-range missile test earlier this month. But why now? What does Kim Jong Un want from his sudden fireworks?

The explanations from Washington and Asian capitals for these latest launches sometimes sound like the naïve foreign policy pundits of the 1990s, at the very beginning of Pyongyang’s methodical march on nuclear status. For example, we hear that the Kim regime is trying to get our attention or that it is strengthening its domestic legitimacy.

Have we really learned so little from a generation of confrontation with this revisionist state? By now, it should be clear to observers that Pyongyang is launching new weapons because their development is critical to its basic strategic goal of unifying the Korean peninsula under Kim’s rule.

To achieve unconditional unification on its own terms, North Korea would first have to break the US-South Korean military alliance. Pyongyang hopes to do this through a nuclear showdown with America. We don’t need to guess about that. Immediately after the latest ICBM launch, a North Korean media outlet explained Mr. Kim’s rationale for building these new weapons: “The long-term demand of our revolution,” the North Korean term for conquering the South, presupposes “the inevitability of long-standing confrontation with the US imperialists .” The logic is simple: no gun testing, no unification.

For this reason, regular and recurring missile launches and nuclear detonations are a key and fully predictable feature of North Korea’s behavior. New weapons must be tested before the scientists and generals of the North can be sure they work. Pyongyang is fully committed to strategic modernization, for which Mr. Kim outlined a detailed program at the party congress early last year. Advancing this agenda will require continuous performance testing of the new equipment, just as previous advances in nuclear and missile capabilities have necessitated North Korea’s earlier experiments.

But why the current spate of launches? The likely answer is that this is simply Pyongyang’s first opportunity to do it. Although Pyongyang has proven adept at keeping outsiders in the dark about its weapons programs, the record suggests North Korea is essentially testing prototypes as soon as possible.

The regime seems unwilling (perhaps doctrinally inept) to wait until it can later test its munitions when it can fire them now — hoping to get them into mass production as soon as possible.

Planned tests are sometimes called for propaganda reasons, of course – July 4th and North Korea’s national holidays are particularly favored dates for launches and explosions. But the North generally appears to be testing its new equipment as soon as it’s deemed ready, which sometimes proves to be sooner than it actually is, as attested by this month’s long-range missile launch pad failure.

But despite all the haste, Pyongyang also takes strangely long breaks between starts. It has been more than four years since the North tested an ICBM.

Outsiders know precious little about how North Korea’s economy as a whole works, and even less about its defense sector, but it’s a fair guess that lengthy pauses between weapons tests are often the result of resource scarcity. North Korea’s economy is tiny, inefficient and unreliable, while missile and nuclear programs are sophisticated and extremely expensive (and all the more expensive for technologically backward societies). In addition, the North Korean economy is painfully vulnerable to unexpected dislocations and severe downturns.

The latest tests signal North Korea’s economy is finally recovering after Mr Kim’s draconian Covid lockdowns all but knocked it out. Economic constraints may also be a reason Pyongyang’s weapons tests were halted after the United Nations Security Council’s spate of sweeping economic sanctions in 2017. And they might explain why the pace of missile and nuclear weapons testing under Kim Jong Il (a notoriously miserable business executive, even by North Korean standards) was so much slower than it was under his son Kim Jong Un before those 2017 sanctions. A self-imposed moratorium too proclaiming – as the North did in 2018 – sounds so much better than saying you can’t scrape the money together.

President Biden took a break from taking office while North Korea suffered from acute, albeit self-inflicted, economic woes. The recent spate of missile tests suggests North Korea’s weapons programs are back in the black. More ominous tests could be forthcoming – we should not rule out nuclear testing. And the return to testing means we should also expect a resumption of North Korean nuclear diplomacy.

Rather than trying to appease Mr. Kim, the Biden administration and the rest of the international community would be well served by identifying and quelling the new streams of resources that are funding North Korea’s war machine. Pyongyang has launched a lucrative new career in cybercrime. The Kim regime has also benefited from Russian and Chinese sanctions destruction. There might well be other illicit earnings worth pursuing; US intelligence should find out.

Thirty years of futile diplomatic attempts with the North have shown that outsiders cannot change the regime’s determination to become a nuclear power. But harsh international economic sanctions, applied tirelessly and creatively, can throw a spanner in the works for the North’s military programs. We should approach this task with the seriousness it deserves. If we don’t try to stop North Korea from becoming a bigger threat, we will enter a world where Pyongyang can credibly threaten the American homeland with nuclear missiles.

Mr. Eberstadt is a professor at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior advisor to the National Bureau of Asian Research.

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