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North Korea on a testing spree

Print edition : Apr 22, 2022 T+T-

The test launch of a new type of ICBM by North Korea’s strategic forces at an undisclosed location in North Korea on March 24.


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un walking near Hwasong-17, before its test launch .


A rally against North Korea’s ICBM launch, in Seoul on March 26.

North Korea tests an ICBM citing the escalating military tension in and around the Korean peninsula, the inevitability of the long-standing confrontation with the U.S. and the danger of a nuclear war.

The North Korean government has been testing its medium- and long-range missiles with alarming regularity since the beginning of the year. In the third week of March, it surprised the world by test-launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time since 2017. The missile, named Hwasong-17, is a road mobile ICBM and was first displayed publicly in October 2020. Hwasong is the Korean name for the planet Mars. According to Japanese and Chinese military experts, the missile travelled at a high trajectory to a height of 6,200 kilometres and horizontally for more than 1,100 km. The flight time lasted 71 minutes. That was 17 minutes longer than that of the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which was test-launched in 2017.

According to military experts, if the missile is fired on a normal trajectory, it has the range to reach most parts of mainland United States. North Korea launched its ICBM from a road carrier, known as a Transport Erector Launcher.

The Western media dubbed North Korea’s latest version of the ICBM as “monster missile”. According to many experts, it is probably the largest liquid propellant missile ever launched from a road carrier. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un described the successful test as a “miraculous” event and a “priceless victory” for the Korean people. The North Korean state news agency, KCNA, said the test was a “striking demonstration of the great military muscle” of the country.

What is worrying the U.S. and its allies in the region is the reputed capability of the North Korean ICBM to carry multiple missile warheads. The tests showed that its short- and medium-range missiles have the range and precision to target U.S. military bases in the region, including those located in Japan and Guam. Other recent North Korean tests included the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and several hypersonic glide vehicles. Only the Hwasong-15 tested in 2017 had the capability to reach the west coast of America. After that test, the Donald Trump administration finally agreed to hold direct high-level talks with North Korea.

Also read: North Korea expands nuclear, missile arsenal: U.N. report

This has been a long-standing demand of Pyongyang, which believes that only Washington has the capability to ensure a peaceful settlement of the long-standing crisis in the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang had paused its nuclear and missile testing after the first meeting between Kim Jong-un and Trump in 2017. The North Korean leader’s meetings with Trump did not yield any significant results except a slight thawing of the ice between the two governments. However, the Trump administration claimed credit for deterring Pyongyang from carrying out more missile and nuclear tests.

But Washington was neither willing to formally end the state of war in the Korean peninsula, which has continued since the war ended in 1953, nor ready to lift the sanctions on the North in exchange for significant concessions on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes. Besides, Pyongyang is angry at the resumption of the U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises on the peninsula since Joe Biden assumed the presidency. However, large-scale military exercises that were suspended in the last years of the Trump administration are yet to resume.

The Biden administration has reverted to the previous government’s policy of diplomatically isolating and sanctioning North Korea. The sanctions on the economically impoverished North have piled up incrementally since the George W. Bush administration included Pyongyang in the so-called “axis of evil” after the 9/11 terror attacks on U.S. soil. The U.S.’ emphasis is on the need for “denuclearisation” of the North without offering anything substantial in return. The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, during a visit to Seoul last year, stressed the importance of “denuclearising” North Korea.

Also read: What we know about North Korea's missiles

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Soon-hue stated in response that the U.S. was peddling a “lunatic theory” by alleging that Pyongyang poses a nuclear threat to the region. The Trump administration had talked about denuclearisation of the entire Korean peninsula. Nuclear-capable U.S. missiles are deployed along the border with North Korea. The U.S. provides “a nuclear umbrella” for its South Korean ally. The incoming President of South Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, who won the election in March with a wafer-thin majority, has promised a much tougher line against North Korea.

Strong riposte

The latest missile tests by the North are a strong riposte to the new diplomatic and military posturing that the U.S. and its allies have adopted. In all, since the beginning of this year, the North has conducted 13 rounds of tests of new missiles and weapons. The recent events on the global stage could have prompted Pyongyang to revert to its old confrontational stance. After the happenings in Ukraine and another Cold War-like situation fast emerging, the North evidently feels that it has more cards to play in the international arena. The permanent members of the United Nations Security Council may no longer be united on matters relating to North Korea, especially on issues relating to U.N.-mandated sanctions.

Kim Jong-un, who was present during the testing of the ICBM, told the country’s official media that the “new type” of the long-range nuclear-capable missile was an illustration of the country’s resolve to develop a “nuclear war deterrent” while preparing for “a long-standing confrontation” with the U.S. Kim said that he ordered the test because of the “daily escalating military tension in and around the Korean peninsula” and the “inevitability of the long-standing confrontation with the U.S. imperialists accompanied by the danger of a nuclear war”. Since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, the danger of a nuclear conflict breaking out has become more real.

President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, during a recent meeting of G7 leaders in Brussels, criticised the North Korean ICBM test. The two leaders pledged to work together to make Pyongyang “accountable”. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the launch was a “brazen violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilising security in the region”.

Also read: North Korea accuses U.S. of 'provocation' amid sanctions

The U.S. State Department has announced more sanctions on North Korea. Russian companies and entities were also sanctioned in the wake of the North’s ICBM test. The Biden administration has accused Moscow of “transferring sensitive items to North Korea’s missile programme”. It said the steps against Moscow were meant to “highlight the negative role Russia plays on the world stage as a proliferator of weapons of concern”.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had made improvement of relations with the North a priority during his term in office, criticised the ICBM launch. In response to the North Korean test, the South conducted a series of missile tests, involving short- and medium-range ballistic and air-to-ground missiles to demonstrate that it had the capacity to meet the threats emanating from the North. The South test-fired its own long-range solid fuel space rocket six days after the North’s ICBM launch.

South Korea says that the rocket will be used to launch satellites in space to monitor the North’s military and nuclear activities. But the technology involved in the project can be used to produce long-range ballistic missiles. Seoul secured U.S. permission to use solid fuel for rocket propulsion in 2020. Last year, the Biden administration lifted all remaining restrictions to allow South Korea to produce missiles with unlimited range.

A recent opinion poll revealed that around 67 per cent of South Koreans want their own nuclear deterrent. Interestingly, only around 9 per cent wanted U.S. nuclear weapons to be deployed on their soil. The overwhelming majority wanted the country to have its own independent nuclear arsenal to defend against threats from the North. Yoon Sook-yeol, who will be assuming office shortly, had on the campaign trail openly called for the deployment of U.S. tactical nukes on the Korean peninsula. In February, he again suggested that the country must develop offensive capabilities claiming that the conflict in Ukraine demonstrated that “war can be prevented only by securing a pre-emptive capability”.

Also read: New South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol to try different tack with North Korea

South Korea, as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, is prohibited from developing nuclear weapons. Some decades ago, the government made clandestine efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. stopped that effort but most analysts believe that South Korea has the expertise to go nuclear at short notice. North Korea had restarted its nuclear reactors in Yongbyon and other nuclear facilities last year after the Biden administration showed little interest in resuming the dialogue process. In his speech delivered during the ruling party’s national congress in January, Kim said that the goal was to produce high-tech nuclear weapons for self-defence.

America’s allies in the region as well as the international community have been critical of Pyongyang’s recent actions. Japanese Defence Minister Makoto Oniki said that the North was choosing to “unilaterally aggravate provocations against the international community” at a time when “the world is dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement urging the North to “desist from taking any further counterproductive actions”.

Under Security Council resolutions, the North is banned from conducting ballistic missile tests. Following the 2017 ICBM tests, the Security Council added more crippling sanctions on the country. Almost all export trade was banned, imports, including those of energy, were severely curtailed and North Korean civilians working abroad, who were a source of much-needed hard currency, were sent home. China and Russia had both voted in favour of the sanctions. Russia and China are unlikely to line up behind the U.S. this time if it proposes additional sanctions on North Korea after the spate of recent missile tests.

The two countries were motivated in 2017 to vote with the West in the Security Council to pre-empt another devastating war on the Korean peninsula. Trump had threatened to unleash fire and brimstone against the North if it developed a missile capable of reaching the American mainland. Trump had said at the time that he was “ready, willing and able” to “totally destroy” North Korea, a country of more than 25 million people. But not too long after making this statement, he made an about turn and broached the idea of meeting with Kim Jong-un in order to defuse the volatile situation on the Korean peninsula.

Also read: What Kim Jong Un's decade in power means for North Korea and the world

The three meetings the two leaders had between 2018 and 2019 did not result in any breakthrough but it did substantially reduce tensions in the region. North Korea announced a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in 2018 but rescinded that decision after the Biden administration took over.

North Korea has been groaning under the cumulative weight of U.N.-mandated sanctions and unilateral U.S. sanctions. The surging COVID-19 pandemic had prompted the North Korean authorities to close its land borders with China. Almost all North Korea’s imports and exports are routed through China. In 2020, the economy had shrunk by an estimated 4.5 per cent. This is a record margin and the economy is forecast to shrink this year, too. Last year, the authorities had said that there was an ongoing “food crisis” in the country.

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