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Analysis: Motives for North Korea's Latest Missile Test

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    NEWSLETTERS

    U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, with the Japanese and South Korean ambassadors, spoke Wednesday after the U.N. Security Council's meeting to discuss North Korea’s recent missile launches, warning that “the world needs to be focused on” the issue. (Published Thursday, March 9, 2017)

    North Korea rarely misses an opportunity to conduct banned missile tests to coincide with high-profile world events at which the impoverished yet nuclear-armed country is likely to be discussed.

    On Wednesday, it fired a missile a day before the first meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

    Did North Korea really want to steal the show ahead of the Trump-Xi summit? Or was the launch just part of its broader missile development programs, with outsiders reading too much into a routine weapons test?

    What you should know about North Korea's latest missile test:

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    DUAL PURPOSES?

    A senior U.S. defense official said North Korea fired an extended-range Scud missile that suffered an in-flight failure and plunged into the sea in a fiery crash. Initial U.S. and South Korean assessments had suggested it might have been a more advanced KN-15 solid-fuel missile whose first publicly known test occurred in February. North Korea called that test a success.

    North Korea may have wanted to give a look at its capabilities ahead of the Trump-Xi summit while sticking to its own weapons development schedule, said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. South Korea's military issued a similar assessment.

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    North Korea has denied using big international events to attract attention in order to wrest concessions and aid. When conducting nuclear and missiles tests in recent years, it has cited what it calls increasing U.S. military threats. Meanwhile, regional disarmament talks that provided the North with much-needed aid have been stalled for years.

    "For North Korea, making advancements on missile and nuclear weapons technology is the clear priority, and political and diplomatic considerations come second," said Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at Seoul's Institute for Far Eastern Studies.

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    North Korea has long fired missiles and detonated nuclear devices during major political events in South Korea and the United States, and before or during regional talks.

    In 2009, weeks after Barack Obama took office for his first presidential term, it fired a long-range rocket in what critics called a disguised test of its long-range missile technology. Days before the 2013 inauguration of South Korea's then-President Park Geun-hye, the North conducted its third nuclear test, making world headlines again and inviting toughened U.N. sanctions.

    The North has fired missiles when South Korea hosted the 2010 Group of 20 summit and other events, and while top U.S. officials were traveling in the region.

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    "I've joked before that they don't mind being hated, but they definitely hate to be ignored," Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Honolulu, said after Wednesday's launch. But he also said the missile launch was hard to understand because North Korea benefits from the U.S. and China being at odds with one another.

    NORTH KOREA'S GOALS

    North Korea may want to send a message to both Washington and Beijing that it doesn't want to be the subject of negotiations, with the country's young leader, Kim Jong Un, vowing to build a powerful, prosperous nation. North Korea could also have used its latest missile launch to show that it won't back down to pressures by the Trump administration.

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    If the launch doesn't have any political or diplomatic meaning, it could just be part of its bigger goal to build up a nuclear and missile arsenal. The launch also came amid ongoing annual South Korea-U.S. military drills that North Korea usually responds to with its own military training and missile tests.

    "They cannot stop now and they are under heavy sanctions anyway," said Koh, the professor. "Until their nuclear and missile programs reach a point where they feel it could be used as a deterrent against the United States, the North probably won't show strong willingness for talks."

    Kim, the analyst, also said it's likely the North will continue to test-fire missiles over the next few months as it continues to pursue a reliable nuclear-tipped missile that can reach the mainland U.S.