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This article was first published by Stratfor Worldview and is reprinted here with permission.

North Korea's strong response to recent U.S.-South Korean military exercises reflects a test of Pyongyang's new calibrated escalation capabilities, and may represent a lasting shift in North Korea's coercive strategy. As we noted in February, North Korea's recent focus on short-range conventional weapons systems will ''provide Pyongyang with more ways to manage its political and security needs by enabling North Korea to increase pressure on adversaries in ways far less likely to trigger a full-scale war.'' It appears North Korea is growing more confident in its ability to manage escalation, meaning Pyongyang will likely take more aggressive actions to dissuade South Korea-U.S. defense exercises and reshape its own security environment.

On Nov. 1, North Korea warned of ''more powerful follow-up measures'' in response to U.S.-South Korea Vigilant Storm exercises, a four-day joint air training exercise that kicked off on Oct. 31. The next day, Pyongyang launched several missiles from numerous locations — including one that landed south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the maritime border between the two Koreas — for the first time since North Korea began testing ballistic missiles in the 1980s. Pyongyang also fired roughly 100 artillery shells into the maritime buffer zone that was set up in 2018 as part of negotiations with Washington and Seoul. Less than two hours later, South Korean and U.S. aircraft responded by firing three air-to-surface missiles into the sea north of the NLL.

Over the next several days, North Korea carried out a series of additional missile tests — including a failed launch of a suspected inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) — and conducted a large-scale drill of military aircraft across the country. On Nov. 7, Pyongyang also claimed it launched two cruise missiles off the South Korean city of Ulsan on Nov. 2, which it said the South failed to detect, but which Seoul and Washington denied happened. 

The Evolution of North Korea's Deterrence Strategy

North Korea's defense strategy has gone through several phases since the end of the Korean War in 1953, particularly after Pyongyang recognized South Korea's economic success in the late 1970s and 80s and waning Soviet and Chinese support near the end of the Cold War. In the decades following the conflict, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung relied on large conventional military and active special operations forces to shape the security environment on the Korean Peninsula. Kim still sought to integrate the two Koreas, and — thanks to the protection of the Cold War security architecture in which North Korea was backed by the Soviet Union and China — felt confident in carrying out active incursions into South Korean territory. But that security architecture began to change in the late 1970s and 80s, as the Soviet Union looked increasingly unreliable, and as China pursued its economic opening and reform. North Korea's economy, meanwhile, had also started falling behind that of the South. Amid waning support from its Cold War allies and South Korea's economic success, Pyongyang began building out a ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program to ensure its own security within this new reality.

Kim Il Sung accelerated North Korea's nuclear development after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. But he ultimately agreed to trade away the pursuit of nuclear weapons in return for international assistance and a path toward recognition under the 1994 Agreed Framework that his regime negotiated with the United States and South Korea. Kim died before he was able to actually sign the deal. But while his son Kim Jong Il signed it shortly after taking power, he did not capitalize on the agreement the way his father could have. 

Kim Jong Il continued the pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, though more often as a potentially tradeable asset — with mixed success. After his stroke in 2008, however, Kim redoubled the effort to develop a viable nuclear weapons capability — especially after witnessing the 2003 destruction of Saddam Hussein's authoritarian regime in Iraq, which lacked nuclear weapons to defend itself against the U.S.-led invasion. 

When North Korea's current leader Kim Jong Un took power in 2011, he continued the rapid pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles — hoping to use these systems as a way to demand global recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power and break free from Pyongyang's decades-long international isolation. Shortly before Kim Jong Un assumed power, Libya's long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi was also overthrown and killed amid a U.S.-backed campaign to topple his regime. Kim saw the lessons of Iraq and Libya as clear examples that without a robust nuclear capability, small states were at the mercy of the big powers. But he also knew that he needed to diversify North Korea's options for escalation beyond a central focus on nuclear weapons, which risk triggering an all-out war.

In 2017, Kim began a self-imposed moratorium on ICBM and nuclear testing after a brief surge of diplomacy and warming relations with then-U.S. President Donald Trump and then-South Korean President Moon Jae-In. Over the next few years and then throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Kim shifted North Korea's focus to developing conventional, short-range missile and rocket systems that could more selectively target critical military assets in South Korea. 

Previously, North Korea was locked in a very steep escalation ladder: In response to South Korean or U.S. actions, Pyongyang could use either its frontline artillery to conduct small-scale actions (like shelling an island, or sinking a ship), or its nuclear weapons at the risk of spurring another full war on the Korean Peninsula. But the development of short-range systems in recent years has granted Pyongyang the ability to better calibrate its responses to external threats with more precision strike capabilities without needing to resort to nuclear threats. 

A Shift in Approach

North Korea's expanded arsenal of conventional weapons is changing its options to manage the security situation around the Korean Peninsula, as seen in Pyongyang's aggressive response to the recent U.S.-South Korea joint military drills. In the past, North Korea's room for escalation was significantly constrained, as it had little capability or confidence to carry out reciprocal military actions beyond a first clash. But thanks to its expanded conventional capability, Pyongyang now has more tactical options at its disposal to shape political calculations in Seoul and Washington, with less risk of a rapid descent into an all-out conflict. 

Pyongyang's recent demonstrations of simultaneous launches of multiple missiles from various areas, focus on new weapons systems, and increased aviation activity are intended to showcase its ability to counter South Korea's defensive systems. In doing so, Pyongyang is asserting that the United States and South Korea's sanctions and isolation strategy is simply ineffective. With this greater room for calibrated escalation, North Korea is likely to become increasingly bold in its military responses to future U.S. and/or South Korean actions. Now that North Korea has broken the taboo of launching missiles across the NLL, for example, it will be less constrained in the future to use a similar tactic. 

North Korea remains highly unlikely to enter diplomatic talks centered on the removal of its nuclear capabilities, which still serve as the backbone of the country's deterrence strategy. Indeed, on Sept. 9, Pyongyang announced a new law that enshrines the right to conduct preemptive nuclear strikes if there is a threat of an imminent attack on its leaders, or the country is at risk of destruction. But restarting a broader dialogue with Washington and Seoul remains in North Korea's economic and political interest, as Pyongyang ultimately hopes to secure sanctions relief and more formal recognition from the international community. By displaying its expanded conventional capabilities, Pyongyang is shifting the security dynamic on the Korean Peninsula, and may be better positioned to press Washington and Seoul to discuss broader arms control measures, rather than demanding denuclearization as the main driver of talks. 

South Korean and U.S. Responses

North Korea's calibrated escalation strategy creates new tactical risks for South Korea, even as it reduces the potential for rapid escalation to major conflict. Seoul has already adjusted its pre-approved responses to North Korean aggressive actions, allowing more rapid proportional kinetic responses. The South has responded to the North's recent actions with similar precision bombing demonstrations, missile launches and artillery rounds. Both sides continue to employ constraint, rarely intentionally risking lives on the other side. But an expansion of North Korea's willingness to carry out military demonstrations closer to South Korea — combined with Seoul's more rapid proportional response — raises the potential for accidental or intentional escalation that leads to loss of life on either side, similar to the series of naval clashes between the two a few decades ago. But unlike the 1999 and 2002 maritime clashes, Pyongyang may feel more capable now to carry out a second or third round of tit-for-tat military escalation should events repeat today. 

Since coming to office, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has reiterated Seoul's support for a strong alliance with the United States, sought to strengthen political and security ties with Japan, and shifted Seoul's security focus back squarely on North Korea. Although Yoon has claimed an ''audacious'' plan to engage North Korea, the reality is a much more traditional conservative South Korean strategy of doubling down on U.S. defense ties and highlighting the threat from North Korea, rather than pursuing peace or sustained de-escalation. Yoon, however, is compelled to walk a line between being seen as tough on North Korea and not acting in such a manner as to expand the likelihood of clashes or conflict. And with North Korea's perceived greater room for maneuvering, this will be a difficult path to walk. 

For the United States, the rising sense of instability around the Korean Peninsula is an unwelcome development. Washington wants to concentrate its Indo-Pacific focus on China, and North Korean actions are a distraction — but one with real security implications. There is strategic logic in Washington engaging Pyongyang from an arms control perspective to reduce the immediate perception of a North Korean threat and allow greater focus on China. However, such a policy is politically untenable, both in Washington (where it'd be seen as a capitulation to nuclear blackmail) and in Seoul (where it'd be seen as an abandonment by a key ally). 

The more likely path is a phased escalation of shows of force by Seoul and Washington, increased missile defense and arms sales in South Korea, and widening trilateral coordination between the United States, South Korea and Japan. But these actions will do little to dissuade the North, and are instead likely to encourage its continued shows of force by making Pyongyang further feel the need to showcase its capabilities amid a more cohesive regional bloc. 

The Implications of a More Bellicose North Korea

North Korea, for its part, is likely to slowly but steadily expand its areas of military action and operations as it seeks to reshape the political and security environment around the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang sees U.S.-South Korean military exercises as an existential threat to the regime, and will use its military demonstrations to emphasize the high risk of escalation around any future exercises. South Korea and the United States will, in turn, need to factor in a more bellicose and belligerent North Korean response to any bilateral military drills. 

With more military action, there is an increased risk of short, sharp clashes (similar to the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island or the sinking of South Korea's Cheonan navy vessel in 2010), and potentially more exchanges of fire between the two Koreas. 

More military engagements may reawaken the South Korean public to the reality of the ever-present but rarely considered North Korean threat — something that could affect voting patterns, though it is unclear currently if that would benefit those arguing for or against conciliation toward the North. At a minimum, it will place North Korea more firmly into the South Korean political dialogue, heightening differences and divisions.

A more bellicose North Korea and sustained heightened tensions increase political risk in and around the Peninsula, imparting uncertainty on foreign activities and investments in the region. As companies are shifting supply chains amid rising U.S.-China economic and trade tensions, this could decrease South Korea's attractiveness as a preferred destination. If North Korea increases the frequency of missile launches into the sea between the Koreas and Japan, it may also add to uncertainty in shipping lanes, particularly if the North fails to issue prior notifications.