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Experts: North Korea Likely to Escalate Tensions to Gain Leverage

This Sept. 15, 2021, photo released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows a test firing drill of a railway-borne missile regiment. (Photo by STR / KCNA VIA KNS / AFP)
This Sept. 15, 2021, photo released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows a test firing drill of a railway-borne missile regiment. (Photo by STR / KCNA VIA KNS / AFP)

Analysts say North Korea is on course to escalate threats in an attempt to put pressure on the Biden administration and gain leverage in future negotiations with the United States.

"North Korea stepped up the ladder of tests from cruise missiles — not sanctioned — to short-range ballistic missiles — sanctioned and tested last March," said Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"It is reasonable to anticipate the possibility of another incremental step in the testing sphere depending on how North Korea assesses Biden's response to this test," said Snyder.

North Korea has conducted a series of missile tests in the past week. On Saturday and Sunday, it launched a new type of long-range cruise missiles, and on Wednesday, it tested rail-launched short-range ballistic missiles.

The long-range cruise missiles flew 1,500 kilometers into the atmosphere before landing in North Korea's territorial waters. The ballistic missiles flew 800 kilometers and landed in the sea off North Korea's east coast, according to North Korea's official news agency KCNA.

North Korea described the new cruise missile tested over the weekend as "a strategic weapon of great significance" and the short-range ballistic missiles as "a railway-borne missile regiment."

These back-to-back tests came after a quiet period that began in March after North Korea test-fired a new tactical short-range ballistic missile.

While cruise missiles do not violate United Nations sanctions on North Korea, ballistic missiles violate multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, said the long-range cruise missiles "landed within North Korean waters" while the short-range ballistic missiles "landed outside of North Korean waters. So it's a step in terms of escalation. And they could continue to gradually escalate until they get the U.S.’s attention."

A show of strength

Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest, said North Korea showcased new weapons to bolster its image of military strength after appearing weak recently while struggling with multiple domestic issues.

"Sanctions, COVID-19 self-imposed international isolation creating economic chaos, and natural disasters have created the impression that the Kim regime is on the ropes," Kazianis said.

"Pyongyang now hopes to change the narrative and showcase its new weapons systems to the world. In the weeks ahead, before the colder weather and snow comes, North Korea will test bigger and deadlier weapons systems to test the resolve of the Biden administration," he added.

While condemning North Korea's launch of ballistic missiles, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Wednesday that Washington is "committed to a diplomatic approach to the DPRK." The acronym DPRK refers to North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"We call on the DPRK to engage in a meaningful and substantive dialogue with us," Price continued.

The Biden administration has been publicly extending the offer of dialogue to North Korea since May, after it concluded its policy review of the regime. Besides describing its policy as a "calibrated, practical approach," the Biden administration has not revealed further details of its policy toward North Korea.

The U.S. also has ratcheted up its multilateral efforts to deal with North Korea, meeting with key allies South Korea and Japan this week.

The U.S. envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, met with South Korea's special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, Noh Kyu-duk, and Japanese Director-General for Asian and Oceanian Affairs Takehiro Funakoshi in Tokyo Monday-Wednesday.

At the meeting held on Tuesday, Kim said, "We hope that the DPRK will respond positively to our multiple offers to meet without preconditions."

North Korea has yet to respond to the U.S. offer for talks as nuclear talks remain largely deadlocked since October 2019.

South Korea launches missile

Within a few hours of North Korea's ballistic missile test on Wednesday, South Korea announced it had conducted its first submarine-launched ballistic missile.

While observing the test, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said, "The increase in our missile power can be a sure deterrent against North Korean provocations."

Experts said Seoul's missile test had been planned in advance and did not appear to be a direct response to Pyongyang's missile launches. However, they said, it contains a subtle message of warning to North Korea.

"It is a warning to the extent that South Korea intends to match North Korean capabilities, but it is hardly a precursor to rising tensions, as Moon is emphasizing a deterrent role for military development and is clearly not signaling the likelihood of use except in defense," Snyder said.

Following South Korea's test, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, on Wednesday threatened that Moon's "slander and detraction" against Pyongyang "will be followed by counteractions, and that North-South relations will be pushed toward a complete destruction."

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council said, "It is unclear if these developments will enhance the prospects for nuclear talks."

"Pyongyang has refused even exploratory talks with the U.S.," he continued. "It may, however, put more pressure on the Biden administration to better address North Korea's nuclear problems."