Assessing North Korea’s Missile Tests

How should the next US president deal with North Korea’s missile tests? Recently, we witnessed two largely different approaches from Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama. Obama showed early signs of willingness to conduct direct diplomacy with North Korea. However, he shifted to the Strategic Patience approach in 2013 after the hermit nation launched a space rocket that could be used as a ballistic missile. Under the Strategic Patience North Korea was completely shunned. Obama also supported further UN sanctions with the hopes that economic pressure would incapacitate North Korea’s missile and nuclear testing abilities.

Trump initially threatened North Korea with use of force and made explicit mockery of Kim Jong-Un. Then, surprisingly, he changed his tone around early 2018. He met with Kim Jong-Un twice in person.[1] None of these meetings were concluded with concrete steps toward the denuclearization of North Korea. Nonetheless, 2018 was a missile-test free year. Trump was still severely criticized by both Democrats and some Republicans for not embracing a tough stance against North Korea’s young dictator.

Neither Trump’s nor Obama’s approach were effective in the long-run. The Obama era economic sanctions and Strategic Patience as well as the Trump era fruitless rapprochement missed the point of why North Korea was showing off with its missile tests. This is why the next US president will be better off not employing any of these past approaches.

Figure 1: North Korea’s missile tests and test locations. Data is collected and visualized by Cem Birol

The Kim Jong-Un era North Korea-US relations indicate that the former’s missile tests were not a reckless provocation, but mostly a call for fair negotiations. In 2012, American and North Korean administrations held a meeting: the US promised food aid in exchange for North Korea suspending its uranium enrichment plans. Following North Korea’s long-range rocket launch into space, this deal was off the table. In addition, President Obama reactively ceased diplomatic relations with North Korea and called it “Strategic Patience”.[2] He also supported UN Security Council-imposed sanctions under resolution 2087[3].

The lack of diplomatic conversation with North Korea may very well be the reason why we observe a surge in missile tests (Figure 1) following the initiation of Strategic Patience. One year after this diplomatic shunning initiative, North Korea publicly test-launched 24 missiles. This was the second largest number of yearly missile tests in the hermit nation’s history. In 2015, North Korea test-launched a total of 25 missiles. Meanwhile, President Obama favored demarches and sanction expansion as his preferred reaction. In 2016, North Korea conducted another nuclear explosion test which was followed by American Congress’ “North Korea Sanctions and Foreign Policy Enactment Act”.[4] The more the Obama Administration pressured North Korea with sanctions and shunning, the more North Korea reciprocated with missile tests.

In his first year, the Trump administration employed a rather explicit and aggressive tone against North Korea. President Trump himself threatened the hermit nation with use of force if the latter did not stop threatening the US.[5] This was of no help. North Korea continued its missile tests until the end of 2017. Ultimately, Kim Jong-Un surprised the world with his nation’s first successful test of a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile, Hwasong 15.

In March 2018, Trump finally accepted Kim Jong-Un’s invitation to meet.[6] It is possible that Kim Jong-Un managed to get Trump’s attention with his new Hwasong missiles. The two leaders met twice, first in Singapore and second in Hanoi, Vietnam. North Korea was not recorded to have test-launched missiles in 2018. Nonetheless, Trump’s talks with Kim Jong-Un were inconclusive. Shortly after the Hanoi meeting, North Korea resumed its short range missile tests. Consequently, the missile test number in 2019 was recorded as high as that in 2017.

It seems that an important number of North Korea’s missile tests came as a reaction to (1) the US’ lack of diplomatic initiatives or (2) unacceptable demands during negotiations. The former mistake was mostly made by the Obama administration, and the latter by the Trump administration. Consequently, Kim Jong-Un had to send the following message with his missiles: “Let us negotiate, but don’t come up with ridiculous demands that I will reject anyway.” The more the US ignored these messages, the more Kim Jong-Un resorted to missile tests.

Sanctions against North Korea’s missile tests meant that the US did not bother understanding what Kim Jong-Un was conveying. It was analogous to trying to shush an annoyingly loud baby instead of trying to figure out what they need. Most of North Korea’s missile tests speak an implicit diplomatic language, and it is a call for renegotiation.[7]

Holding talks like the post-2017 Trump administration was still far from solving the problem of missile tests. As those missiles were launched, North Korea did not only call for negotiations, but also sought terms that it deemed fair. As North Korea’s acts in 2019 showed, failed negotiations can be followed by the resumption of missile tests. Hence, President Trump’s display of rapprochement also missed the point.

What will it take for North Korea to stop these tests? First, the US should take initiatives in presenting a treaty that both sides can agree on and then commit to. One thing is clear, and this is Kim Jong-Un’s unwillingness to sign any treaty that will jeopardize his tenure. The world witnessed how Ghaddafi regime in Libya gradually collapsed after Muammar Al-Ghaddafi gave up his nukes. Kim Jong-Un will certainly seek assurances about the stability of his tenure. He will continue to reject any resolution offers that weaken his position as the leader of the hermit nation.

Second, the US’ first reaction to any missile tests should not be to choke North Korea with sanctions. After all, while most of these tests serve as a diplomatic strategy, some of it carry no political goals. Missile tests are expensive events that require months of preparation and pre-scheduling.[8] It is possible that a missile test that follows a North Korean-US treaty may have been scheduled long before the negotiations. Besides, more of these tests do not make North Korea, or any similar country more likely to attack others. In fact, empirical analyses show quite the opposite.[9] Overall, the next US President should not panic and lose temper after witnessing North Korea’s missile tests. Smart diplomacy seems like the best solution.


[1] Excluding the brief DMZ meeting.

[2] https://www.cfr.org/timeline/north-korean-nuclear-negotiations

[3] https://undocs.org/S/RES/2087(2013)

[4] https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/757

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/08/world/asia/north-korea-un-sanctions-nuclear-missile-united-nations.html

[6] https://www.cfr.org/timeline/trumps-foreign-policy-moments

[7] Birol, Cem. “Publicly-Conducted Missile Tests in International Politics.” (2019) Diss., Rice University. https://hdl.handle.net/1911/107985

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

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