This screen-grab image taken from North Korean broadcaster KCTV in 2019 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watching the launch of a ballistic missile at an unknown location. Photo: AFP / Handout / KCTV

SEOUL – The great game between North Korea and the United States is heating up.

North Korea test-fired a brace of ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on Thursday morning (Maarch 25), ratcheting up tensions as diplomatic activities surrounding the Korean Peninsula gather pace.

According to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, two missiles were launched at 07:06 and 07:25 on Thursday morning from North Korea’s east coast. The projectiles flew 450 kilometers and reached an altitude of 60-km before splashing down, a range and height characteristic of ballistic missiles.

Unlike the test of flat-trajectory tactical cruises missiles on Sunday – which was brushed off by US President Joe Biden – Thursday morning’s launch constituted a violation of UNSC resolutions and hurls down a gauntlet to the new president. The North’s last ballistic missile test was in March 2020.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told a press conference in Tokyo that the launches posed a threat to security and peace in the region, adding that he would discuss them with Biden during their anticipated summit in April.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has not yet commented on the launch. His National Security Council called an emergency meeting, though it restricted its comments to an expression of “deep concern.”

The development comes against a background of intense diplomatic activity.

Following a swing through the region by new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Minister Lloyd Austin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is holding talks in Seoul on Thursday.

A trilateral meeting is expected to take place next week in Washington where Japanese, South Korean and US national security officials will discuss their approach toward North Korea. However, this meeting has not yet been confirmed by South Korean officials.

Tokyo’s Suga and previous Shinzo Abe administrations have been considerably more hawkish toward North Korea than Seoul’s Moon Jae-in government. Seoul and Tokyo are also at odds over history-related issues that have poisoned bilateral relations since 2018.  

Meanwhile, the US FBI has taken the unprecedented step of extraditing from Malaysia an alleged North Korean operative on money laundering charges.

Most significantly, the Biden administration’s policy review on North Korea – which will outline the contours of US policy toward the state for the next four years – is expected within April.

Kim ups the ante

As the diplomatic merry-go-round accelerates, Thursday morning’s ballistic missile launches are the latest upward calibration of North Korea’s actions since the Biden administration took power.

After a mild verbal response to South Korean-US joint military drills, which ended last week, Pyongyang fired two tactical cruise missiles into the Yellow Sea on Sunday.

So far, so predictable. What is concerning for political and defense players in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, however, is what the next rung up the ladder of escalation might be.

Under Kim Jong Un, who took power in 2011, there have been small-scale shootings and land mine events on the DMZ, but no significant attacks on South Korea. The last, the sinking of a naval corvette by an alleged North Korean mini-submarine and an artillery strike on a South Korean island, took place in 2010.

Kim Jong Un in ebullient form. The North Korean leader is engaged in a new rivalry with US President Joe Biden. Photo: AFP

That has largely left Pyongyang with strategic arms tests as shows of force. From Thursday’s short-range ballistic missile test, the next steps would logically be a medium-range ballistic missile test, a satellite launch using dual-use technology, an intercontinental ballistic missile test and finally the detonation of a nuclear device.

These actions, experts agree, are not simply tests of weapons’ engineering – they have political aims.

Domestically, they upgrade national cohesion. Internationally, they intimidate, draw adversaries to the negotiating table and extract concessions. And for both audiences, they prove Pyongyang’s relevance in global affairs.

Following successful ICBM and nuclear tests, Kim Jong Un applied a self-imposed moratorium in 2017 and came out of isolation to win his country’s biggest diplomatic achievement ever – meetings with then-US president Donald Trump.

Even so, after two summits and despite high hopes, the two sides could not reach any agreement on tension reductions and denuclearization.

A key question now is whether Pyongyang and the US are prepared to engage each other at the levels seen under the prior Trump administration, or whether they will return to the simmering status quo of the Barack Obama administration.

The weapons game

For now, experts say North Korea is sticking to a tried-and-trusted playbook.

“This is the usual cycle or rhythm as they know what kind of effects they can achieve with a certain action – whether they shoot into the east or west sea, and what kind of missile they use,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean major general, told Asia Times.

Still, Chun warned that North Korea could miscalculate.

“The North Koreans are very shrewd in this, but I think they are playing a dangerous game,” he said. “They have got away with it so far, but there are no guarantees that it will continue.”

Still, North Korea’s military has technical, as well as political, reasons to test weapons, which they have been quietly upgrading since the failure of a Kim-Trump in Hanoi in 2019. At a high-profile party congress in January, Kim announced a staggering expansion of his arsenal.

Assets to come from Kim’s weapons factories are a “super-large” hydrogen bomb, a nuclear submarine, multiple-warhead ballistic missiles, hypersonic warheads, tactical nuclear weapons, military satellites and drones.

While many of the announced arms are likely still on the drawing board – and could simply represent pawns to be negotiated away while maintaining core capabilities – there is little question that North Korea, despite its minuscule, heavily-sanctioned economy, boasts impressive arms-development capabilities.

A screengrab taken from a KCNA broadcast on October 10, 2020, shows what appears to be new North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles during a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea, on Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP/KCNA

“North Korea has shown its ability to scale up its capabilities under the nose of the international community,” said Alex Neill, a Singapore-based security consultant. “It may be the case that they may have been scaling up their stockpiles while increasing their capabilities, and saber-rattling is part and parcel of that messaging.”

The diplomatic round

Neill, a specialist in China’s Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), noted that the Biden administration is seeking to both pressure China and pressure its allies to join multilateral efforts. North Korea, which exists courtesy of an economic lifeline supplied by China, is likely to be included in these efforts.

“Pressuring China on North Korea is going to be one of the tools that the Biden administration is going to use. It is going to call out China for prevaricating on the North’s capabilities,” he said.

This, plus increased tensions between Pyongyang and Washington, could prove problematic for Seoul.

“If the North Koreans think the US will be intimidated they could be wrong. I think the US position will go in the other direction,” said Chun. “And they will increase the Moon administration’s difficulties, as Moon wants to upgrade inter-Korean relations.”

Despite constant rebuffs, Seoul consistently seeks to re-engage with North Korea. Earlier this week, South Korea’s Minister of Unification told the local press that it is seeking avenues via which it can provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea in a “not-so-small and sizable manner.”