As 2022 draws to an end, Kim Jong Un convened a meeting of the Workers’ Party congress in Pyongyang and laid out new objectives for North Korea in the coming year. He spoke of a “Newly created challenging situation” on the peninsula and emphasized the need for a shift in the North’s “anti-enemy struggle.” He did not discuss the ‘challenging situation’ in great detail, choosing instead to highlight it as the reason behind North Korea’s need to increase its military power in 2023.
Kim’s talk of increasing military power it should be viewed as a sign that test firings of ballistic and other types of missiles will continue deep into the new year. Expect the possibility of a nuclear test to rise, as well as an increase of provocative actions in close proximity to the DMZ and the North’s border with the Republic of Korea. Monday’s launch of five North Korean drones into ROK airspace is a sign of things to come.
Kim Jong Un’s ambitious designs will present new problems for the Biden administration in Washington. It is already fair to assume that North Korea’s behavior and actions in the last twelve months were at least partially inspired by what it views as weakness on the part of the United States. Actions speak louder than words and unfortunately, the Biden administration’s warnings to North Korea about its increasingly belligerent behavior has not been supported by firm action. For most of 2022 the Biden administration relied on flyovers by US bombers and stealth fighters in ROK airspace to serve as the primary deterrent and warning. Evidently, the flyovers have not convinced Kim to soften his tone and approach. Quite the contrary, in fact.
North Korea could become a major concern in 2023. That warning is usually mouthed each year around this time. However, circumstances are quite different at present between US focus being fixed on Ukraine and to a lesser degree China. Pyongyang’s plans for the coming year will be looked at early next week when we examine the possibilities in Ukraine, the Western Pacific and on the Korean peninsula for the coming year.
North Korea is continuing preparations for the launch of the nation’s first intelligence satellite, set for April, 2023. State media reported on Monday that “important, final phase” test was conducted Sunday. According to KCNA, the National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) oversaw the test at the Sohae satellite launching station. The test’s purpose was to confirm progress on satellite imaging, data transmission and ground control systems. A vehicle supposedly carrying a mock satellite was launched. Coincidentally, South Korea and Japan both reported the isolated launches of two North Korean medium-range ballistic missiles Sunday, adding some credibility to the report.
KCNA also distributed two black and white low-resolution photographs of Seoul and the South Korean port of Inchon, located a short distance away. Apparently, these images were taken on Sunday during the launch. However, the low-resolution images, as well as photographs of the launch site have produced skepticism among many observers. Specifically, the launch vehicle for the test, which appeared to be an obsolete rocket carrying cameras. There were no signs of a satellite being carried.
This observation aside, North Korea’s determination to place a spy satellite in orbit this coming spring falls in line with Pyongyang’s drive to modernize its nuclear weapon and missile programs. If a satellite is launched in April its cameras will be obsolete by modern standards. This aside, placing an intelligence gathering platform in orbit will signal an advancement and acknowledgement of the North’s technological capabilities. As has been the case with its missile programs, subsequent satellites will see marked improvements from the original.
Kim Jong Un is certainly making the most of the world being distracted by the war in Ukraine, and to a lesser degree China for most of the past year. Missile launches have become an almost weekly event. So much so that the world hardly notices, despite the fact a number of the tests openly defy UN resolutions and sanctions aimed at the North’s nuclear weapon programs. In the absence of a strict rebuke or effective deterrent from the UN or United States, the tests and progress will assuredly continue on and North Korea’s nuclear weapon programs will reap the rewards.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have continued trending upward in recent days. North Korean missile tests and artillery exercises conducted in response to US/ROK military exercises currently underway have set off warning alarms in the capitals of South Korean, Japan and the United States. North Korea’s increasingly overt material support for Russia’s war in Ukraine is now attracting a growing amount of attention from the rest of the world. Opinion on North Korea’s long-term goal is divided between two camps. One cross-section of diplomats, politicians, journalists and analysts believes the North’s actions are intended lead up to a nuclear test at some point in the near future. A second group is equally convinced Kim Jong Un is simply biding his time and testing the waters, so to speak. When the time is right, he will order a ballistic missile test with a Hwasong-17 ICBM and follow it up with a nuclear test.
Both theories hold water, although a series of variables are coming into play which could affect timing of a nuclear test by the North, from China’s rising COVID-19 infection rate to the war in Ukraine, and even perhaps the results of today’s US elections. At the end of the day however, it could simply come down to the whim of North Korea’s leader. Whenever he feels the time is right, he’ll move. Regardless of what is taking place in other parts of the world.
There has been some discussion on North Korea’s arms shipments to Russia, and whether or not they are in violation of the sanctions currently in place against the North. Even if a violation has occurred, there is little the UN can do about it. China and Russia are permanent UN Security Council members and will run interference to prevent further sanctions from impacting North Korea.
With world attention fixed on Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory and increasing worries over the conflict potentially entering a nuclear phase soon, North Korea launched a medium-range ballistic missile over Japan early on Tuesday morning. The event caused the Japanese government to issue an emergency warning to citizens over its emergency warning system. This marked the seventh time a North Korean missile flew over Japan, and the nation’s fifth missile test in the last week. In fact, North Korea has been on a record setting pace with missile tests so far this year. 21 ballistic missiles and 3 cruise missiles have been launched since January. Sadly, with other events around the world taking precedence in the eyes of many, North Korea’s testing spree has not garnered the attention it deserves.
Most of the North’s test launches are fired into the Sea of Japan, between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Unannounced test flights that go over Japan are more dangerous and provocative. For the Japanese, such an act is a violation of its sovereignty.
As for the purpose behind the missile launch, testing generally resumes in early fall and continue into the winter. Conditions are ideal at this time of the year and Pyongyang often looks to take advantage of it. Beyond that, Kim Jong Un has made it clear he plans to push North Korea’s nuclear weapon development forward at the greatest speed possible. This test is an example of that.
Since its invasion of Ukraine in February, Russia’s international clout has dropped tremendously. Many nations Moscow considered to be friendly have jumped ship and disavowed having any sort of relationship with Russia, whether economic, diplomatic, or military. Except for China, Cuba and a handful of other staunch allies, Russia is very much alone. North Korea is not one of the nation-states shunning Russia however, and its loyalty is being rewarded. In a letter to Kim Jong Un for Korea’s Liberation Day, Vladimir Putin said closer ties between Moscow and Pyongyang are in both countries’ interests and will help strengthen the security and stability of the Korean peninsula and the Northeastern Asian region. Kim replied with his own letter, reminding Putin of the long friendship shared between North Korea and Russia. The burgeoning relationship really caught the world’s attention in July when North Korea officially recognized two Russian-backed breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine as sovereign nation-states.
Russia is not the only power competing for North Korea’s attention. South Korea is also trying to entice Pyongyang into closer relations as well as eventual denuclearization. Today South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday offered comprehensive economic assistance to North Korea if it abandons its nuclear weapons program.
Pyongyang has been quiet over the summer. The underground nuclear test many analysts were expecting never came about. With numerous crises going on simultaneously around the world, Kim Jong Un has been operating under the radar for the most part. With Seoul and Moscow now visibly courting the North, expect this to change in the coming weeks and months. North Korea will be back on the world’s radar scopes for better or worse by late September.