After almost a year and a half without missile tests — 521 days, according to Shea Cotton of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies — the sudden return of launches undermines Trump’s push a diplomatic relationship with Kim. But it’s also worth noting that North Korea’s rocket launches do not appear to break any agreements Kim.
Well, at least not any that Kim made with Trump.
In the first year of the Trump administration, North Korean missiles were a major source of tension in Washington. In 2017, North Korea conducted at least 20 missile tests that year — and one nuclear test — that suggested significantly improvements its weapons capabilities. In August 2017, Trump said that Pyongyang “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it continued to threaten the United States.
That spate of testing ended in November 2017. Since then, Trump has repeatedly suggested in the past that North Korea’s halting of missile testing was a sign of the progress he has made in diplomacy. In the past, he has tracked how many months it has been since North Korea fired a missile.
“A Rocket has not been launched by North Korea in 9 months,” he wrote last July. “This is more than has ever been accomplished with North Korea,” Trump tweeted in January, referring again to missile testing.
But while Trump has claimed some of the credit for the pause in North Korean missile testing, it is not necessarily a direct result of any deals he has reached. Rocket launching was not directly mentioned in the brief document signed by Trump and Kim in Singapore, which instead spoke vaguely of the need to build a “build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
Any hopes that more details of this vague agreement could be filled out when Trump and Kim met again in Hanoi earlier this year were dashed when the U.S. delegation left the summit earlier due to disagreements about denuclearization and sanctions.
Instead, North Korea imposed its moratorium on missile testing unilaterally. In a statement made to a meeting of the central committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in April 2018, Kim told officials that it had “verified the completion of nuclear weapons.” As such, North Korea would “stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles” effective immediately, he said.
There was no indication that this decision to stop testing was permanent. It’s also noteworthy that it referred specifically to intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Ballistic missiles are those that make use of a ballistic trajectory, requiring propulsion only for the start of their journey away from the earth before then using gravity to pull them back down to earth. Such weapons are worrying because of they require less fuel and they can carry large warheads at high speeds.
The weapons testing that Kim oversaw last Saturday does not exactly fit that description, though its still alarming. Michael Elleman, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and an expert on missile technology, wrote that North Korea undertook then included “a new short-range ballistic missile” which could “significantly enhance Pyongyang’s capacity to conduct strategic strikes against targets in South Korea.”
In a tweet on Saturday, Trump appeared to respond to North Korea’s missile launch by stating that he believed “Kim also knows that I am with him" and that he "does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!”
Analysts are still evaluating Thursday’s missile tests, though the early conclusion is that these are again ballistic missile tests.
The missiles tested this week do not appear to have an intercontinental range, which is at least 3,400 miles. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that the flight distances of the weapons tested on Thursday were estimated to have been 260 miles and 170 miles, which would put them well-below the upper limits of the definition of a short-range missile, though they may have higher ranges if flown at a different trajectory.
Of course, a number of United Nations Security Council resolutions bar North Korea from testing ballistic missile technology at all. But North Korea never agreed to those either.