Many observers in the west woke up on the morning of the 4th of May 2019 to the news that the DPRK appears to have launched a series of short range missiles from a peninsula near the port city of Wonsan. If confirmed, this would be the first missile test since November 2017 and would mark a significant change in Pyongyang’s outlook for the future. One of the greatest successes for US President Trump was the moratorium on nuclear and rocket testing by the DPRK during negotiations. So what prompted the test?
The DPRK seems to have grown weary of negotiating with the US in the wake of the Hanoi summit where the US refused the sanctions relief plan put forward by the DPRK side. Since then, Pyongyang has made it clear that it expects a change in stance from Washington or else they will begin to lose interest in denuclearisation all together. Only a few days ago, Marshall Kim Jong Un visited Vladivostok to meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin to discuss various political and economic issues in an effort to prove to the US that the DPRK has other options for economic assistance. This move was likely an attempt to force America’s hand into agreeing to limited sanctions relief. With no backtracking from the West Wing on the sanctions issue and the talks once again stuck in a deadlock the launching of missiles may be a very direct way of reminding the world that Pyongyang is still a credible threat and still maintains a strong arsenal of weapons. Trump, headed into the 2020 elections, will not want to see his signature diplomatic achievement crushed by Kim Jong Un and this move will likely step up the pressure on his administration to return to the table with a more agreeable framework for peace.
Russia and China have yet to directly comment on the issue but the increasingly friendly relationship being fostered by Chairman Kim Jong Un with Beijing and Moscow suggest he is attempting to build diplomatic relationships that will form a powerful political coalition which could force Washington to providing more options for sanctions relief. Despite these attempts to return to the table, the sudden and dramatic move by the leadership in the DPRK suggest a growing pessimism that may result in the government turning entirely to the Chinese and/or the Russians to try to salvage some economic support without surrendering their nuclear arsenal.