The recent escalation in North Korean missile tests and military exercises is Pyongyang's attempt at gaining leverage over the United States, says USIP's Frank Aum: "They want to create a crisis in order to pressure the United States back into talks on [North Korea's] terms."

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Julie Mason: Frank Aum is senior expert on northeast Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace here to talk a little North Korea. Good morning, Frank.

Frank Aum: Good morning, Julie.

Julie Mason: Appreciate you being here. So, President Xi of China is in the news a lot these days, consolidating his power. And one of the things he has undertaken is to write to Kim Jong-un and urge cooperation and unity. That seems a little ominous, even though we know that they're allies and that that's a relationship, but the last thing you want is a world superpower helping out North Korea more.

Frank Aum: Well, I think, you know, the two countries have been partners, and in some cases allies, for many decades, and I think in recent years China has been growing more isolated and North Korea as well. They've taken to assisting each other even more. North Korea certainly needs China's assistance in terms of humanitarian assistance, food, heavy fuel oil. China is North Korea's main trading partner, and then vice versa. North Korea has been signaling support and friendship with China in recent years. So, I think it's making sense as both countries become more isolated.

Julie Mason: Do you see anything ominous in it or anything to worry about?

Frank Aum: No, again, like I said, this has been the growing pattern over the last several years. I think both countries are trying to find areas to support as they feel like the international community is mobilizing to develop a coalition against these countries. So, I don't see it as anything more ominous than what we've seen over the last decade or so.

Julie Mason: Alright, well, I will take it off my list of things to be concerned about. In the meantime, South Korea kicking off some military drills. This following that bit of airspace menace from North Korea last week.

Frank Aum: Right, so over the last several months, North Korea has been conducting many provocative activities – forty ballistic missile tests this year, which is the most in any year for North Korea, as well as artillery exercises, and air exercises, as well. And a lot of these are meant to signal its displeasure with recent actions taken by the United States and South Korea. The alliance has conducted its own military exercise to demonstrate their resolve against the North Korean threat, including a trilateral, anti-submarine exercise with Japan, as well as the bigger major exercise as conducted in August. So, there's many reasons why North Korea conducts these activities, including protesting things that are done by the United States and South Korea, but also to demonstrate its military deterrence. They know that they likely won't be engaging with the United States in the near future. So, they set up upon a military development plan that focuses on increasing its deterrence capabilities. And also, they think, you know, in the chance that they do return to negotiations with the United States, they want to be able to increase their leverage, increase its arsenal so that they may be able to have some things to negotiate away when they are in talks with the United States.

Julie Mason: And some of the things that they would like are those sanctions to be lifted and other moves by the United States?

Frank Aum: Yes, so remember, back in February 2019, in Hanoi, this was the last major set of negotiations that North Korea had with the United States. They were expecting a lot of things in return for some of the things that they had offered back in 2018. They are hoping for some relief of major sanctions that were imposed on North Korea since 2016. That would allow them to continue their export industry. The U.S. decided in Hanoi that that deal wasn't good for the United States and the international community. And so, now North Korea feels a little bit betrayed. They feel like they deserve some of these things in response to things like ending their nuclear testing and long-range missile testing. So, they're trying to hold out for talks that are on better terms for North Korea.

Julie Mason: Frank, do you see what's happening now as just a part of a continuum? Or is there something unique or concerning about this latest eruption of shooting missiles into the ocean and whatnot?

Frank Aum: Yeah, I don't want to say that we are becoming desensitized to these activities. But they do fall into a broader pattern that North Korea has, which is that they want to create a crisis in order to pressure the United States back into talks on their own terms, right? And this is something that they've done for many years. It's not a healthy pattern to get into. But oftentimes it works because at least at the current moment, the U.S. has many other things to worry about, you know, China, Ukraine, and so the U.S. has other priorities and North Korea feels like it needs to get back on the agenda, similar to how it was during the Trump administration in 2018, by conducting these provocative acts that get on the U.S. radar and signals that North Korea is a concern to be dealt with, right? And sometimes we need to do provocative acts so that the media focuses on you. Again, it's not a healthy pattern to get into, and I think we need to try to think of a new way to get around it.

Julie Mason: Frank Aum is senior expert on northeast Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Thank you so much for joining me this morning.

Frank Aum: Thank you, Julie.

Julie Mason: Great to talk.

Related Publications

North Korean Arms Control Doesn’t Have to Conflict with Disarmament

North Korean Arms Control Doesn’t Have to Conflict with Disarmament

Thursday, January 19, 2023

By: John Carl Baker

There is a tension between limiting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and pursuing the goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula. To emphasize the former — through arms control and risk-reduction measures — can seem at times like a repudiation of the latter. Conversely, a focus on disarmament — still the core of U.S. policy — can seem outright fanciful given North Korea’s stunning technological advances. In North Korea, the United States faces a nuclear-armed state whose capabilities continue to expand despite international opposition and extensive economic sanctions. Disarmament simply isn’t in the cards right now.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & PreventionGlobal Policy

What You Need to Know About Japan’s New National Security Strategy

What You Need to Know About Japan’s New National Security Strategy

Monday, December 19, 2022

By: Mirna Galic

Japan released on Friday a new, robust national security strategy and complementary defense planning documents. The strategy is Japan’s first in nearly 10 years and only its second ever. The strategy navigates the country’s response to significant changes in the regional and global security environment, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and reflect Japan’s growing sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis its immediate neighbors. USIP’s Mirna Galic looks at the new strategy and what it means for the region.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

Incremental Denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula

Incremental Denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

By: Frank Aum;  Dr. Moon Chung-in

Tensions are rising on the Korean Peninsula as many believe North Korea is planning to conduct the seventh nuclear weapons test in the country’s history and the first since 2017. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has warned of an “unprecedented joint response” and called on China — North Korea’s closest ally — to dissuade Pyongyang from going through with the test. Amid this troubling geopolitical environment, USIP’s Frank Aum discussed the prospects for peace on the Korean Peninsula with Yonsei University’s Dr. Moon Chung-in.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global PolicyConflict Analysis & Prevention

U.S.-North Korea-South Korea Youth Perspectives on Peace on the Korean Peninsula in 2050

U.S.-North Korea-South Korea Youth Perspectives on Peace on the Korean Peninsula in 2050

Monday, October 24, 2022

By: Frank Aum;  Paul Kyumin Lee

This paper describes a virtual workshop on envisioning peace on the Korean Peninsula for youth from the United States, North Korea, and South Korea that was conducted over three days in January 2021. The workshop was designed, organized, and facilitated by the United States Institute of Peace, and participants were selected in partnership with Liberty in North Korea and the International Student Conferences' Korea-America Student Conference.

Type: Discussion Paper

Conflict Analysis & PreventionYouth

View All Publications