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.
Japan’s decision to significantly alter its National Security Strategy and almost double defense spending seems to have taken much of the world by surprise. Personally, I find this reaction to be more of a shock. For most people who monitor the geopolitical and military balance in the Western Pacific its clear Japan has been on this path for years, stretching back to the early years of Shinzo Abe’s tenure. Tokyo has been strengthening the Self Defense Forces in uneven increments over the years in response to China’s growing military power and Beijing’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy demeanor. Now that the Japanese government has publicly stated its intentions to enhance the buildup and move towards a more offensive footing, the world is finally opening its eyes to the powder keg that could be brewing in the Western Pacific region.
At a press conference today, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was quick to point out that the revised policy is a major shift, it is not in opposition to Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. “Japan’s path as a peaceful nation will remain unchanged,” Kishida emphasized. Japan is certainly contending with an unstable and complex security environment at the present time. And looming in the distance is the prospect of a security dilemma holding the ability to undermine or severely damage Japan’s national security as well as its geopolitical prestige and power. The policy revisions are partly designed to prevent a security dilemma from appearing.
In the policy statements released by the Japanese government, defense spending priorities for the next decade and emphasize the increasing danger “posed by those seeking to unilaterally change the status quo by force.” This is a direct referral to China and to a lesser degree North Korea. And despite Japan being viewed as a more peaceful, borderline pacifist nation by many around the world, public opinion has been in favor of increased defense spending and security strategy for some time.
North Korea reached another milestone on its path towards a seventh underground nuclear test when it test-fired a Hwasong-17 ICBM on Friday. The missile landed near Japanese waters, raising already high tensions in the region even more. The Hwasong-17 is an intercontinental ballistic missile still under development by the North. It has a range estimated at greater than 9,000 miles and will have the ability to hold MIRVs, or in layman’s terms more than one nuclear warhead.
On Sunday, the US, South Korea and Japan released a statement condemning North Korea’s recent wave of ballistic missile firings. The leaders of the three nations also pledged to work closer to strengthen deterrence. Condemnation of this particular missile test came swiftly from the United States and many of its allies in the region. The US Vice President, in Bangkok attending a Asian-Pacific Cooperative Forum said, “We strongly condemn these actions, and we again call for North Korea to stop further unlawful, destabilizing acts. On behalf of the United States, I reaffirm our ironclad commitment to our Indo-Pacific Alliances. Together the countries represented here will continue to urge North Korea to commit to serious and sustained diplomacy.” A canned political statement to be sure, and between the lines it appears to confirm the US will continue regarding North Korea’s increasing boldness as a nuisance rather than a direct threat to the United States.
Washington’s continued indifference could turn out to be a cataclysmic mistake which costs hundreds of thousands of NK, ROK and American lives one day.
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.