North Korea’s Next Missile Test Could Kill

Firing back with ‘unprecedented’ provocations against joint South Korean and American annual military exercises, Kim Jung Un could make a dangerously wrong move.

On Monday, North Korea fired five short-range missiles eastward. The projectiles fell into the Sea of Japan, what Koreans call the East Sea. The provocation followed Friday’s launch of two Nodong medium-range missiles, which can put a dent anywhere in South Korea and parts of Japan.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has launched 15 projectiles on four separate occasions since early last month in apparent shows of anger.

Friday’s and Monday’s belligerent acts follow a series of threats to kill all the residents of Manhattan and launch “preemptive and offensive” nuclear strikes. The regime has also taken the unprecedented step of releasing photographs of leader Kim Jong Un standing next to what it implied is a thermonuclear device.

As one friend whose son served on the peninsula in the 1990s told me in the last few hours, we’re “eyeball-to-eyeball” with the North Koreans at the moment.

Tensions are high on the Korean peninsula this month, as approximately 300,000 South Korean and 17,000 American personnel participate in annual military exercises. Every year the Kim regime reacts to the drills, but this year its provocations have been “unprecedented,” as David Maxwell of Georgetown University told The Daily Beast today.

Unfortunately for the international community, Mr. Kim this year has something to prove. As Maxwell points out, his provocations of last August—two South Korean soldiers were maimed in the Demilitarized Zone by land mines—were considered a “failure” because he did not anticipate Seoul’s decisive responses.

And his belligerence since then has only worsened his predicament. Kim authorized the regime’s fourth nuclear test, on Jan. 6, and a launch of a long-range rocket, on Feb. 7. These acts did not divide the international community as they might have in an earlier time. Instead, Mr. Kim managed to create his nightmare scenario, the uniting of the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China in a loose coalition against him.

Thanks to this coalition, the UN Security Council unanimously imposed a fifth set of sanctions this month, in Resolution 2270, and Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. unilaterally enacted their own coercive measures. As Georgetown’s Maxwell notes, “I think the regime is doubling down after 2270 as it did not expect to get sanctioned harder than it had ever been.”

Maxwell sees Kim having “to demonstrate strength to both internal and external audiences for fear of greater international pressure that will further cut access to resources.” To do that, he thinks Kim will have to speed up his nuclear, missile, and satellite programs “in anticipation of the loss of resources.”

No surprise then that there are reports that the North is getting ready for a fifth detonation of a nuclear device.

A test so soon after the last one would raise young Kim’s standing with the top brass, but it would not be enough for him to get back in the good graces of the flag officers. Since taking over the regime in December 2011 upon the unexpected death of his father, he has been feuding with the generals and admirals while trying to diminish their power inside ruling circles.

As Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center told The Daily Beast in e-mails, recent provocations have been accompanied by purges and executions. The disappearance and reported execution of Ri Yong Gil, the chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, early last month suggests Kim is losing control of the most important institution in North Korea. Ri, if he was in fact killed as South Korea’s semi-official Yonhap News Agency reports, would be at least the third four-star put to death in 13 months.

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In the short term, Kim probably will not do anything other than make threats and fire weapons into the sea. With the ongoing joint military exercises, the U.S. and South Korea are at a high state of readiness.

Yet in May, when the exercises are over, he may engage in another “kinetic” incident. Leading North Korean analyst Bruce Bechtol, who told The Daily Beast that he thinks recent provocations are in response to the new “robust sanctions,” has studied the history of Pyongyang’s belligerence. In an article in Korea Times, he writes that the patterns of the last four decades show the North could very well initiate “a small violent provocation” against South Korea.

Alison Evans of IHS Country Risk told USA Today that “increasing economic hardship in North Korea may well make more provocative action a logical option for the leadership.”

Yet it is not only desperation that Washington has to worry about. Young Kim, for instance, could continue to miscalculate. “They will hold to the mistaken belief that the international community will not call its bluff and will eventually back down to ensure stability on the peninsula,” Maxwell says, referring to the North Koreans. “But I think the times they are a changing and it will not be business as usual as it was for the past six decades.”

Whether through miscalculation, desperation, or bluff, the North Korean leadership could make a dangerously wrong move. The next batch of North Korean missiles, therefore, could be launched not east toward open sea but south, where 28,500 Americans help guard 49 million South Koreans.