A few days ago, North Korea launched several projectiles into the waters between it and Japan. Did you know this? Unless you are a professional North Korea watcher, from that small community of journalism, government, and academia that watches Pyongyang closely, you probably did not know. And you probably did not really care either, as you are worried about more important things like dealing with the coronavirus.
I note all this to illustrate the limits of North Korean antics. Often when North Korea engages in these sorts of launches, I am asked if these are signals or otherwise efforts to communicate with the South Koreans, Americans, and Japanese. Perhaps they are, but at the most basic level they most probably reminders that North Korea is still here and still demands attention at a time when events overtake it. North Korea is basically a third world banana republic, plus a massive military. Occasionally, more serious issues like coronavirus act to remind us of that and put North Korea into a more proper, lower-ranking of our priorities.
North Korean provocations like this usually have several causes:
First, at the most basic level, the North may feel an actual empirical need to test the weapons it develops. All states do this of course, and North Korea does have a huge military budget. It develops a lot of weapons. It is on a permanent war-footing. (This likely helps explain to its people why the country’s development is so stunted.) So maybe Pyongyang really does need to put its many new weapons through their paces.
But this explanation feels thin, as the North sometimes tests and sometimes not. It often attaches outlandish rhetoric to tests and frequently schedules them at times which look an awful lot like signaling – usually displeasure at something done by South Korea. And the world is especially attentive to Pyongyang’s missile launches, which are technically banned by the United Nations (not that that has ever stopped the North). So usually we assume a deeper meaning.