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Executive Summary: North Korea’s March 2021 Missile Tests

Team: Weapons & Tactics

Week of: 22 March 2021

Between March 21 and 25, North Korea launched four missiles; the first time they conducted such tests since April 2020.[1] The first test included the launch of two non-ballistic short-range missiles that landed in the Yellow Sea and was not in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.[2] Ballistic missiles were tested during the second half of the week, which North Korea is banned from firing according to the rules set by the UN Security Council. The missiles flew for over 400km and landed in the Sea of Japan, around Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Due to nature and history surrounding North Korea and its weapons testing, it is highly likely that these tests will continue on a random basis. While the Biden administration and the United Nations could take action against North Korea, possibly involving a strengthening of the sanction regime against the country, the situation will likely continue on its current course.

Flag of North Korea[3]


Several factors may have motivated North Korea to launch these missiles. However, based on the timing, it is likely that the expected finalization of a U.S policy review on North Korea was a primary cause.[4] In this case, the missiles were likely intended to be a warning of the consequences that may arise if the US’s new policy is perceived as hostile to Pyongyang. The timing of the incidents also suggests that the joint US-South Korean military exercises earlier in the month, which North Korea views as a provocation, and plans for the first extradition of a North Korean national to the US, also very likely influenced Pyongyang’s actions.[5]

The missile tests also likely served as an attempt to pressure US President Biden to lighten sanctions on North Korea that were put in place in part due to Pyongyang’s aspirations to develop a sophisticated nuclear arsenal.[6] These sanctions have taken a significant toll on the North Korean economy, and attempts to resolve the situation diplomatically to all parties’ satisfaction, have failed. Therefore, Pyongyang may believe that a show of force is necessary for their grievances to be addressed.

The missile launches were also likely a way for North Korea to see how the new US administration would react. The missiles fired on March 21 were cruise missiles and not prohibited by UN Security Council resolutions.[7] Furthermore, it was only after public reports that indicated that President Biden would not retaliate that North Korea proceeded to launch ballistic missiles on March 25. This suggests that Pyongyang was interested in determining the extent to which they could test their weapons without experiencing retaliatory action. Should the Biden administration’s response be perceived as weak, North Korea would very likely exploit it, and ramp up its missile tests.

A final possible driving force behind the missile launches is North Korea’s apparent desire to test the capabilities of these weapons and further improve them. Pyongyang views the possibility of foreign military aggression as an existential threat.[8] North Korea is therefore pursuing the development of modern nuclear Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to deter such threats and to protect its regime. North Korea’s missile tests often serve as stepping stones towards this goal.


These launches will most likely not prove to be a significant factor on their own. Regionally, this test will most likely cause the United States and South Korea to increase their military deterrence, as well as continue to partake in military drills in the area. This attempted deterrence, however, could be seen as a provocation for future tests if interpreted poorly by North Korea. Deterrence could also be a problem if it is seen as an immediate threat by North Korea. This could ignite immediate military action; however, it is very unlikely to happen.

By looking at former US President Obama, whose vice president was current US President Biden, it may be possible to gauge how the current administration will react to these missile launches. Under the Obama administration, North Korea tested missiles as well as nuclear weapons but was sanctioned heavily for it. The Obama administration did initiate a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests in 2012, which North Korea agreed to. The moratorium was only held for two months before another test was executed by North Korea. While these events happened under the Obama administration, it is feasible that the Biden administration will carry the same standards when dealing with North Korea.[9] However, based on recent events, such measures are unlikely to be successful.

North Korea’s future goals are mostly focused on one subject, which is their ability to develop and maintain an arsenal of successful nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. They believe that this would give them the best chance for prosperity as a nation. The collection of high-level military equipment by North Korea would almost definitely be hindered by the United States and others among the international community. Most nations, including China and Russia, agree that North Korea should not be able to reach its nuclear goals.[10] In the long term, it will be difficult to prevent this accumulation from happening.


There are two types of broad measures available to the US and its allies in mitigating the threat posed by North Korean missiles, including nuclear ICBMs: diplomatic and military measures. Military measures range from committing to full-scale war, limited military actions, which would be less likely to result in a costly retaliation, and special operations to assassinate key figures. However, military action poses the risk of an escalation with North Korea, which could have dire consequences, especially due to the country's access to nuclear weapons.[11] For instance, North Korea may be capable of firing an ICBM at mainland USA, and while it would likely not be successful at this time due to several factors, the US would have little choice but to retaliate.[12] This retaliation would likely depend on the impact of a North Korean attack, as well as the ongoing threat posed to the US and its allies, but would at minimum likely result in a conventional invasion of North Korea. Such a course of action would not only result in a costly war, which could potentially draw in other powers such as China but could also result in the use of more weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

However, despite involving significantly less risk, diplomacy has, and will likely continue to, achieve limited results, unless North Korea’s allies, particularly China, are co-opted. This is made clear by the reported impact that China has on the effectiveness of sanctions on North Korea. For instance, it has been alleged that China’s shipping sector played a critical role in allowing North Korea to bypass UN sanctions on trade in oil and coal.[13] However, due to the ongoing geopolitical competition between the US, China, and their respective allies, organizing a united response to North Korea is very unlikely. However, like the US and its allies, China seemingly does not want North Korea to be armed with modern nuclear ICBMs, very likely due to the potentially catastrophic consequences such weapons could have in the hands of the unpredictable country.[14] China has therefore taken some steps to prevent such a scenario, including supporting UN resolutions designed to mitigate this threat; despite ultimately limiting the effectiveness of these actions, as indicated above, due to geopolitical concerns. China’s apparent concern over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal should be exploited in future attempts to create a comprehensive solution to the threat posed by North Korea, and the country's geopolitical concerns addressed as much as can be reasonably expected, to limit Beijing’s rogue activities.

It may be argued that due to the ineffectiveness of the efforts to combat the threat posed by North Korea, the international community should agree to North Korea’s demands, and remove sanctions on the country. This would likely appease North Korea’s leadership, and potentially improve its relations with its rivals. The global community could then attempt to exploit this to convince Pyongyang to abandon its aspirations of developing a sophisticated nuclear arsenal. Such efforts would, however, almost certainly fail. As previously indicated, Pyongyang considers nuclear weapons critical to regime survival, as it is the best deterrent to the threat of foreign invasion, and will therefore be extremely likely to continue its effort to develop a sophisticated nuclear arsenal.[15] Should this occur, it could have dire consequences for global security and stability.

The Counterterrorism Group has been and will continue to monitor the situation developing in North Korea by relying on their WATCH and Threat Hunter groups. These groups keep watch throughout the day, to keep track of events happening worldwide. Many of the teams at the Counterterrorism Group will also be paying particularly close attention to the actions of North Korea. These teams include but are not limited to Weapons and Tactics, PACOM, and CICYBER. ________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] North Korea fires two missiles into sea in new threat to regional 'peace and safety', Sky News, March 2021,

[2] North Korea fires two ballistic missiles into Sea of Japan, BBC News, March 2021,

[4] US dismisses North Korean missile launches as Biden says he’s open to talks, The Guardian, March 2021,

[5] North Korea Severs Diplomatic Ties With Malaysia Over Extradition Of Citizen To US, Republic World, March 2021,

[6] What to Know About Sanctions on North Korea, Council on Foreign Relations, July 2019,

[7] North Korea fires two ballistic missiles into Sea of Japan, BBC News, March 2021,

[8] What to Know About Sanctions on North Korea, Council on Foreign Relations, July 2019,

[9] The U.S. and North Korea On The Brink: A Timeline, PBS, February 2019,

[10] North Korea crisis: What does Kim Jong-un really want?, BBC News, August 2017,

[11] What to Know About Sanctions on North Korea, Council on Foreign Relations, July 2019,

[12] How safe is the U.S. from a North Korea nuclear attack?, USA Today, November 2017,

[13] North Korea defies sanctions with China's help, UN panel says, The Guardian, April 2020,

[14] The China–North Korea Relationship, Council on Foreign Relations, June 2019,

[15] What to Know About Sanctions on North Korea, Council on Foreign Relations, July 2019,



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