Sung-Yoon Lee on the impact of North Korea Missile Tests

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and Assistant Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He is also Faculty Associate at the U.S.-Japan Program, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University.

Julia Schulman CMC '23 interviewed Dr. Sung-Yoon Lee on September 21, 2021.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Sung-Yoon Lee.

The Korean Central News Agency recently reported that it had tested fired a long-range cruise missile and a few days later it fired two ballistic missiles into the sea. What was North Korea's goal in taking these actions?

Every state with ballistic missile arsenals periodically needs to fine-tune its capabilities by conducting tests. I would say it was about time. Now, North Korea has shown a propensity to choose to conduct missile tests on a major holiday, both North Korea's national holiday, and the holidays of other countries including the US. For example, in 2006, North Korea conducted a long range missile test, plus six short range missile tests on July 4th, which was in the early morning, July 5th local time in the Korean peninsula. And then in more recent memory in 2017, North Korea conducted its first intercontinental ballistic missile test on July 4th. The timing was good due to the confluence of a major holiday coming up on September 9th, and the relatively long interval since the last test. North Korea had a technical need to do it, and a political need to put more pressure on the Biden administration. It came as no surprise, to me at least, that North Korea did conduct nuclear missile tests on both September 10th and 11th, and then followed it up with a ballistic missile test, which is banned under more than 10 UN Security Council resolutions.

Could the tests be a bid to remove the strict international sanctions on North Korea?

North Korea sanctions have been a very complex topic for decades. Many people have the mistaken notion that US sanctions and international sanctions against North Korea have always been very tough. That’s simply not true. Until 2016, there was not even a single North Korea specific sanctions legislation in the United States. You might recall, in Hanoi, Vietnam, during the summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, North Korea and the US could not come to an agreement, and President Trump walked away. That really shocked the North Koreans, and that same day, around midnight, the North Korean foreign minister and vice foreign minister held a press conference and complained that ‘it wasn’t fair, all the great leader asked for is the suspension of UN sanctions.’ That's a bit disingenuous, since the UN sanctions really started to bite in 2016. So, North Korea certainly is keen on somehow compelling the US to go along with lifting those unilateral US sanctions as well as UN sanctions. The US can veto any resolution within the Security Council to lift UN sanctions. So, the US holds the key. The way for North Korea to get there is to act nice and dismantle its nuclear program, which is probably not the best way forward for North Korea. I think the best move is to become a bigger political headache for the Biden administration, to reset the stage, and become a larger threat with more serious tests in the coming weeks and months. North Korea usually goes through gradual escalation. We're on that trajectory of North Korea becoming a bigger political headache for the Biden administration in the form of more serious weapons tests.

Was the dialogue between President Donald Trump and North Korea a missed opportunity?

Well, when Kim Jong-Un proposed to President Trump to meet face to face, it was conveyed by South Korean senior officials. I would argue that Kim Jong-Un had planned for this after a period of relentless provocation. It makes sense for him to change the tune to a more pleasant one. Concessions in the form of 10s of billions of dollars have flown into North Korean coffers since the early 90s by repeating this pattern: provocation, return to negotiation, and then demand for concessions. It's been a very successful business model for the Kim family. So on Monday March 5, 2018 Kim Jong-Un said Hey, I'm willing to meet with President Trump. The South Koreans were very excited by this and they flew to Washington on Wednesday and met with Trump on Thursday, telling President Trump that the North Korean leader is amenable to denuclearization and wants to meet. Then Trump, due to hubris and most certainly ignorance of the North Korean strategy, said yes on the spot. So, in my view, Trump fell into this elaborate trap set by Kim Jong-Un to prolong talks for the sake of talks, during which time, Kim Jong-Un does what he really wants to do which is to expand his nuclear arsenal. So was the fallout for the dialogue bad or good? Yes and no. Yes, It was a missed opportunity, but the opportunity was slim. It probably did not make much difference in the end because North Korea would have produced more bombs.

What, in your opinion, is the US’s best move?

Well, it's a very difficult question, and the Biden administration has been saying the right things. North Korea has repeatedly said that it is not interested in talks, and from the North Korean perspective, that makes sense. The way North Korea increases its leverage is to not be compliant, to not be soft or become a more normal country and open up, but really like a professional athlete to look for a bigger contract to perform. So the way for North Korea to increase its leverage is to become a bigger threat to the region.  From North Korea's vantage point, it makes sense. I fully expect North Korea to become more provocative in the coming weeks and months, and for the rest of the year. As the Biden administration is struggling from the messy Afghanistan withdrawal, this is the right time for North Korea to come out swinging. North Korea clearly does not want to start a war, and no one wants a war, which would be mutually destructive. North Korea wants to push the envelope, and there's a happy occasion for that: the world's most glamorous spectacle: the Winter Olympics in Beijing, will start in early February next year. So if Kim Jung-Un’s sister Kim Yo-jong visits Beijing for the games, she will be the center of attraction, and she will exude these positive feelings of North Korea wanting to be embraced by the world. The mood will dramatically shift to a happier one. This is in North Korea's interest. The opportunity is there for North Korea to really escalate tensions from now until February and then change their tune dramatically.

Julia Schulman CMC '23Student Journalist

Stefan Krasowski, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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