North Korea Tests Missiles—and International Resolve

Using summit goodwill to buy time, Kim Jong-Un is expanding his arsenal and winning the game of nuclear negotiations, says Fletcher School professor

North Korea is firing missiles again—testing at least eighteen of them since May. President Donald Trump has downplayed the importance of the tests, but some experts say the new short-range missiles could threaten U.S. military bases in the region, as well as South Korea and Japan. The tests also demonstrate that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un continues to outwit the U.S. in negotiations over his country’s nuclear ambitions, according to Sung-Yoon Lee, F94, F98, the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

“The window for negotiations is fast closing,” Lee said. “Without sufficient financial pressure against the North Korean regime . . . Kim will not part with his nukes.”

The U.S. should have enforced tougher sanctions against North Korea over the last two years, but instead Trump played right into Kim’s hand and “settled for summit pageantry that has allowed Kim to build more bombs under the cover of diplomacy,” Lee said.

Until May, North Korea hadn’t detonated a nuclear device since September 2017 or tested a missile since November of that year, but reports suggested that the country continued to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The greater range and maneuverability of the missiles tested in recent months are evidence of a program designed to overwhelm Japan’s defenses, according to that country’s defense minister.

Tufts Now spoke with Lee to understand the strategy behind North Korea’s missile launches and what the tests mean for U.S. efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Tufts Now: What does Kim Jong-Un hope to achieve with the recent missile launches?

Sung-Yoon Lee: North Korea’s missile launch on May 4 this year, the country’s first in eighteen months, was viewed by Americans and others as a show of defiance and displeasure at President Trump’s walkout on Kim Jong-Un in Hanoi in February. It wasn’t.

Rather, it was the opening salvo to a strategy of controlled provocation and weapons enhancement designed to compel the U.S. to accept North Korea’s short-range ballistic missiles, which are in flagrant violation of eleven United Nations Security Council resolutions, as a fact of life.

Pyongyang fired off two more short-range ballistic missiles on May 9. And since July 25—pointedly after the staged “impromptu” meeting between Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump in the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea—North Korea has conducted seven more missile launches. Why? By repetition without repercussion Kim has conditioned Trump and the world to regard his ballistic missile tests as routine.

How should the U.S. respond?

President Trump has downplayed Pyongyang’s missile tests as “very standard.” Rather than bend over backward to condone these tests, which are a direct threat to South Korea and Japan, the U.S. should issue condemnations unliterally as well as at the UN Security Council. Trump should announce that all future summit meetings with Kim are off the table until North Korea issues an official statement that it will immediately cease all ballistic missile and nuclear tests and abide by UN Security Council resolutions. Meanwhile, the U.S. should levy hefty fines on all entities—individuals, agencies, banks, and corporations—found in violation of both U.S. North Korea sanctions laws and UN Security Council resolutions.

International sanctions and three meetings with President Trump don’t appear to be stopping Kim from expanding his arsenal. Is the window for fruitful negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea closing?

The window for negotiations is fast closing. Without sufficient financial pressure against the North Korean regime that would compel Kim Jong-Un to seriously weigh the cost of bankruptcy against at least partial dismantlement of his nukes and missiles, Kim will not part with his nukes. Counterintuitive as it sounds, for real denuclearization to take place, the U.S. needed to cut off Kim’s streams of revenue to the point of pushing Pyongyang to be even more belligerent than it was in 2017. Instead, the U.S. settled for summit pageantry that has allowed Kim to build more bombs under the cover of diplomacy.

If the conflict between the U.S. and North Korea is a zero-sum game—with one winner and one loser—who’s winning?

North Korea has won every round since the dawn of U.S.-North Korea nuclear negotiations nearly thirty years ago. The North has won tens of billions of dollars in concessions, while the U.S. has “won” a nuclear North Korea.

What are South Korea’s options to deal with a nuclear North Korea?

South Korea, too, needs to avoid empty summit pageantry that only favors the North Korean dictator. Seoul should be doing all it can do to sanction North Korea instead of seeking new means to subsidize it.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at

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