While the world is captivated by all things Omicron and Russia, North Korea is once again back on the world stage. And that can only mean one thing: bigger and badder missile tests.
None of this should come as a surprise. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has announced to the world on numerous occasions that he will continue to test such weapons, even as his nation suffers from a “food problem.” Kim, his father, and his grandfather have been marching towards a fully viable nuclear deterrent for decades now.
What is new is that Kim has declared that he...

While the world is captivated by all things Omicron and Russia, North Korea is once again back on the world stage. And that can only mean one thing: bigger and badder missile tests.

None of this should come as a surprise. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has announced to the world on numerous occasions that he will continue to test such weapons, even as his nation suffers from a “food problem.” Kim, his father, and his grandfather have been marching towards a fully viable nuclear deterrent for decades now.

What is new is that Kim has declared that he will not abide by the promise he made to not test certain weapons platforms that directly threaten the US homeland — what drove the near-nuclear showdown with President Donald Trump back in 2017. And that can only mean that Pyongyang was threatening to test nuclear weapons and missiles that can hit US territories, Hawaii, and even the continental United States.

Indeed, just like clockwork, North Korea is back at it again, testing an intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Hwasong-12, with the range and capabilities to hit Guam. But this time Kim pulled out all the stops, showing off to the world what looks like missile selfies, with images of the rocket blasting off into space and high above the earth.

But this isn’t 2017, and that’s what makes what Kim is doing far more dangerous: this time he isn’t aiming for concessions from the international community. These days, the DPRK’s missiles don’t drive the social media buzz or the A-block on Fox News — because the news media largely doesn’t care anymore. Kim’s missile tests — of weapons quite a few countries have mastered, as the technology is straight out of the 1970s — just don’t bring the ratings and clicks that they once did.

Here is where things get dangerous, as surely Kim now understands that his gambit to get global attention — and what he wants most of all, some sort of sanctions relief — needs a 2021 reboot. North Korea’s next move will most likely be to test a long-range missile, or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), something he has not done since the fire and fury days of 2017. That missile will be able to threaten America directly, and that will force America to care once again.

But even that won’t be enough. Of course Kim needs to make a bigger splash than just firing an ICBM into the sky and back down like he did in 2017 — that dog-and-pony show is old news now. I would argue Kim needs to show off the full range of the missile, so why not fire it deep into the Pacific Ocean and maybe over Japan in the process, to really drive up the fear factor and headlines?

One critique of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and missiles is that Kim has never mastered the complex technology that allows a nuclear warhead to survive atmospheric re-entry and hit a target like a city accurately. If Kim really wants to drive headlines, he not only has to test the range of his ICBMs but make sure a dummy warhead splashes down in the Pacific, putting to rest any doubts that the Hermit Kingdom can kill millions of Americans.

Kim will indeed test an ICBM; the only question is when. He could decide to go for it right before the Olympics, as North Korea would not want to risk the wrath of China — the nation that bankrolls the regime — and test during the games. He could, of course, wait until afterward, but then he might be competing for airtime and social media engagement with Russia if Putin decides to attack Ukraine. My guess is Kim’s ICBM goes flying this week right before the opening ceremonies.

What will be interesting to watch is how the Biden administration handles the fallout from the ICBM test — no pun intended. So far, they have shown a real lack of interest in all things North Korea. They’ve offered countless times to talk to Pyongyang, but there is no real policy beyond wanting “denuclearization,” a fantasy that died long ago.

Surely Team Biden will push for more useless sanctions that China and Russia will block at the UN Security Council, after which North Korea may perhaps up the ante and test a nuclear weapon to push back. All the while, with each passing escalation, the danger of accidentally misreading intentions, signals, or intent would create the ever-present danger of armed conflict with nuclear weapons.

All of a sudden, it feels like 2017 all over again. And that is truly terrifying, as this twisted game of nuclear groundhog day continues.

Harry J. Kazianis is senior director at the Center for the National Interest. He previously served as part of the foreign policy team for the 2016 presidential campaign of Senator Ted Cruz. He has held think-tank positions at the Potomac Foundation, CSIS: PACNET, the Heritage Foundation and served as editor-In-chief of the Diplomat.