TOKYO — Armchair experts on North Korea – and a fair few who watch from their desks too – like to write off Kim Jong Un as unpredictable. Who knows what this nuclear-armed madman might do next, the refrain goes.
U.S. warplanes conducted a bombing drill Thursday close to the border that separates the two Koreas, as if to intimidate the hard-to-read leader.
But anyone who’s surprised by the last month’s events – from North Korea’s threat to fire missiles close to Guam, to the actual launch of a missile over Japan – hasn’t been paying attention.
For Pyongyang’s actions have been clearly telegraphed.
Take the Aug. 9 statement from the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. The army’s top missile unit was drafting a plan to create “an enveloping fire” around Guam with Hwasong-12 missiles, KCNA reported. The plan would be sent to Kim, who would make a decision mid-month.
Sure enough, on Aug. 15, the agency reported that Kim had been to see the missile unit’s leaders – he had a great time there, if his broad smile in the photos is anything to go by – and had reviewed the plan.
He was going to keep an eye on “the foolish and stupid Yankees” a bit longer, KCNA quoted him as saying, making it clear he was talking about the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises starting on Aug. 21.
North Korea always protests against the exercises, which it views as a pretext for an invasion, and China and Russia had been urging the United States to tone it down a bit. But they went ahead as planned.
So what did Kim do? On Aug. 29, two days before the end of the exercises, he fired a Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missile technically capable of reaching beyond Guam.
The United States responded by sending stealth planes and fighter jets on a bombing drill near South Korea’s border with North Korea Thursday, the final day of the exercises.
“You can go back years and find them pretty clearly stating that this is what they’re going to do and this is why they’re going to do it,” said Van Jackson, an international security expert at Victoria University in New Zealand. “And now it’s just happening.”
In a statement after the launch, KCNA said that the missile units were practicing “striking the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces located in the Pacific operational theater” – an apparent reference to Guam.
There have been clear signals before many of North Korea’s recent provocations. Take its launch of an inter-continental ballistic missile technically capable of reaching the mainland United States.
In his New Year’s address on Jan. 1, Kim said his rocket scientists were in the final stages of preparing for launch. On July 4, he made good on this.
“They show their hand when they’re going to do something that could create actual instability,” Jackson said, citing aircraft and maritime warnings head of missile launches over the years, and the advance notification to Japan before it launched a rocket over its neighbor in 2009.
So, despite its often over-the-top language, there’s plenty of reason to take North Korea seriously when it warns, as it did this week, that there will be more missile launches.
Kim called Tuesday’s launch a “meaningful prelude to containing Guam” and ordered his missile unit to be “fully ready to go into action for decisive battle.”
North Korea is doing several things with these launches, analysts said. One of them is practicing launching under a variety of conditions and from a variety of places.
“This was an operational test,” said Vipin Narang, an expert on nuclear proliferation and strategy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noting that this launch took place at a new site, just north of the capital.
“They’re getting units ready to fire a missile without being destroyed,” he said, adding that KCNA has emphasized that this was a rehearsal for a real-life situation.
North Korea was also testing its technology.
Tuesday’s missile was fired at only half-range, South Korea’s defense ministry said in a report to the National Assembly Thursday. The missile had a full range of 3,100 miles, the ministry said. Guam is 2,100 miles from Pyongyang.
But North Korea is also taking advantage of the mayhem in Washington, said Robert Carlin, a retired U.S. intelligence specialist on North Korea.
“The North Koreans read our media, they know that Trump is in trouble and that Washington is dysfunctional,” Carlin said.
“They know that, for all of the fist-shaking, the United States really is a headless giant right now. They know that there’s not much we can do, so they’re willing to press us,” he said.
The Trump administration has not reciprocated with a clear message to the Kim regime, analysts say.
Sanctions have been Washington’s main tool for dealing with North Korea, but Pyongyang has found ways to get around any new restrictions.
“Sanctions are always one step behind,” Jackson said. “It’s a whack-a-mole problem.”
A forthcoming report from the U.N. panel of experts on North Korea, seen by The Washington Post, says North Korea “continues to flout the arms embargo and robust financial and sectoral sanctions, showing that as the sanctions regime expands, so does the scope of evasion.”
Military action against North Korea would have “horrific” consequences, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said earlier this month, not least because of the devastation that North Korea could inflict on the South with its conventional artillery.
Even as his officials try to find an opening for negotiations, Trump on Wednesday ruled out diplomacy. “Talking is not the answer!” he tweeted.
But the president’s message was quickly undercut by his own defense secretary.
“We are never out of diplomatic solutions,” Jim Mattis said at the Pentagon before meeting his South Korean counterpart, as if to back up Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comment a few days earlier that “the president speaks for himself.”
Narang of MIT said that the recent muddling of messages goes beyond ambiguity. “Incoherence is not a strategy, and this is really starting to look incoherent,” he said.
For that reason, North Korea is likely to continue lobbing threats and firing missiles for the foreseeable future.
As Carlin, the former intelligence analyst puts it: “Until the United States gives them a good reason to stop testing, they’re not going to stop.”