Jul 26, 2019

Ignoring North Korean missile tests could hamper nuclear talks

Footage of a North Korean missile launch playing on a television in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Less than a month ago, President Trump was standing on North Korean soil with Kim Jong-un. This week, North Korea carried out 2 more tests of an advanced missile first shown in May, but to a longer range — demonstrating that its arsenal continues to improve even as disarmament talks nominally continue.

Where it stands: South Korean President Moon Jae-in has spoken of disarmament and peace as “irreversible” processes, and Trump apparently assumes that the specifics of an agreement will sort themselves out, thanks to his personal relationship with Kim Jong-un. But it's clear that Kim has other plans.

What's new: The missiles North Korea tested this week followed a “depressed” trajectory, flying at a lower altitude to reach potential targets faster or maneuver around missile defenses.

  • The tests show that the regime is thinking seriously about its ability to strike protected targets in allied countries at short notice.
  • These are surprisingly advanced capabilities for a country that only 2 years ago possessed a rudimentary missile arsenal.

Between the lines: Many of North Korea's steps over the last 6 months have seemed designed to ratchet up pressure on the Trump administration to make concessions.

  • Without a clear agreement to restrict nuclear and missile tests, North Korea is almost certain to test more missiles, likely of longer-range or more sophisticated systems.
  • The regime has set an end-of-year deadline for talks, after which they say tests will resume in full.

The bottom line: Sweeping these tests under the rug is not preserving negotiations but propelling them toward eventual collapse. If the tests aren't addressed during new talks, the U.S. could again find itself at the brink of war, facing an adversary even more capable than before.

Adam Mount is a senior fellow and director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

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