Slipping away from Ukraine for a brief spell, North Korea’s latest missile test is raising concerns across the world. The US, South Korea and Japan have all condemned what looks to be the test of an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) by the North on Thursday, its first ICBM test since 2017. The test was far from unexpected. US officials have been warning for weeks now that an ICBM test was probable in the ‘near future.’ The missile flew for 71 minutes, traveled a distance of 671 miles, and reached a maximum altitude of 3,852 miles. It landed 100 miles off the coast of Japan, prompting Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to label the launch as ‘reckless’ and ‘unacceptable.’
This missile, officially named the Hwasong-17, has upgraded capabilities over its predecessor, with the ability to reach the United States and carry multiple-independently targeted re-entry vehicles. In other words, more than a single warhead. It is more of a threat to the United States than Western Pacific nations, yet this has not deterred South Korea from staging its own demonstration in response to Pyongyang’s launch, firing its own ballistic and cruise missiles and dropping guided bombs, in order to “demonstrate the determination and capability to immediately respond and punish” North Korea.
While much of the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine and Russia, North Korea has conducted a string of missile tests over the last month. The most recent test firing came yesterday, and was the nation’s most powerful test since 2017. It was an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) that reached an altitude of 2,000 kilometers before descending into the Sea of Japan. The tests this month have defied the UN ban on ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests by North Korea.
Sunday’s test was condemned by Japan, South Korea and the United States. Aside from words of condemnation and warning, however, there has been no concrete response from regional powers or from the US. South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in did remark that this round of missile tests is similar to 2017 when the North conducted nuclear tests and fired powerful missiles, some of which flew over Japan.
As for the reason behind these tests, there are a variety of opinions floating around. Some colleagues believe the tests are a signal to the world. A demonstration of North Korea’s military prowess to create a position of strength from which Pyongyang can use to its advantage. Then there is the timing of these tests. The Winter Olympics are set to start soon in Beijing and the South Korean presidential election is scheduled for March. Kim Jong Un might want to influence both, or at the very least remind the world North Korea is still there.
While I believe the reasons above are viable theories, conditions in North Korea are likely the main driving force behind the January surge of missile tests. The economy continues to struggle from a combination of factors; economic sanctions, COVID-19, and thirty-plus years of gross mismanagement on every level. These have combined to place the government in a precarious position. Kim Jong Un might be gambling that the US and other world powers realize the North is growing desperate and needs relief before the situation comes to a head. North Korea has employed this strategy before without success. Why Kim Jong Un would opt to try again is unclear.
Concerted efforts are underway by the North Korean government and the nation’s northern neighbors to stave off disaster as a major food emergency threatens to become worse. The government is now encouraging citizens to consume less food through 2025, the year when the border with China will reopen. The border closed last year as a COVID-19 precaution and caused significant food shortages and turmoil. The absence of imports from China nearly collapsed the North Korean economy and food prices saw significant increases. Right now, it seems unlikely the border will remain closed until mid-decade, considering that freight traffic between the two countries is resuming shortly. North Korea relies on China for 90% of its trade.
The government in Pyongyang has laid blame for the continuing crisis on ‘factors beyond its control’ which prevent the North from achieving food self-sufficiency. Not surprisingly, the continuing economic sanctions by the US and UN are seen as the most significant obstacle. China and Russia are now engaged in an attempt to persuade the UN Security Council to ease sanctions. The draft resolution includes lifting a ban on some North Korean exports such as seafood and textiles, however, the likelihood of the draft finding support among the other security council members. A single veto will resign the draft resolution to the trash heap and send North Korea right back to square one.
By this juncture it has been made abundantly clear that North Korea is unwilling to take the one step that will make the sanctions permanently disappear, and that step is denuclearization. Pyongyang views its nuclear arsenal as the only thing standing between it and complete dissolution. Yet Kim Jong Un seems more ready to continue with the game of chicken at present, with little regard for the future. Kim’s shortsighted thinking could ultimately prove disastrous for North Korea.
North Korea is adopting a stringent position on the recent AUKUS security deal in which the United States and Great Britain will share nuclear submarine technology with Australia. Pyongyang has stated that it believes the deal holds the potential to spark a nuclear arms race and destabilize the balance of power in the Western Pacific. “These are extremely undesirable and dangerous acts which will upset the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region and trigger off a chain of nuclear arms race,” a North Korean foreign ministry official was quoted as saying by state media. “It is quite natural that neighboring countries including China condemned these actions as irresponsible ones of destroying the peace and stability of the region and the international nuclear nonproliferation system and of catalyzing the arms race.”
North Korea does not have nuclear-powered submarines and its inventory of platforms capable of delivering nuclear warheads is open to speculation. Therefore, the North really doesn’t have a dog in this race. So, why would it take the time to come out in opposition to the AUKUS deal if it has very little to do with Pyongyang? The answer to that is simple: Regional prestige. North Korea views itself as a major player in Asian geopolitics. In reality, the warnings by the North are little more than grandstanding and a ham-handed attempt to attract more attention to recent ballistic missile and alleged cruise missile tests. This latest round of weapons tests by North Korea attracted little attention from the United States, much to Pyongyang’s disappointment. Kim Jong Un’s regime is undoubtedly hoping its words will succeed where its missile launches failed.
As for the AUKUS deal, its plain to see that China is its intended target, not North Korea.
With Afghanistan now set in the rear-view mirror of the embattled Biden administration, North Korea could be stepping up as the next foreign policy challenge for the United States. Back in early July, the North resumed operations at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which had been closed since December 2018. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) noted the activity in a report released last week. “Since early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor.” The Yongbyon reactor is capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. Its reactivation has stirred concern about North Korea taking steps to expand its nuclear arsenal. In fact, Pyongyang warned the US recently that it will resume and expand its nuclear program if the ‘hostile policy’ held towards the North by the United States is not withdrawn. This was a blatant reference to the continuation of US-South Korean military exercises and economic sanctions.
Resuming operations at Yongbyon could very well be a calculated step by North Korea intended to gain leverage in its struggle to remove the economic sanctions that the US has in place. Or could turn out to be a direct test of the Biden administration’s resolve in the aftermath of the Afghanistan withdrawal. Pyongyang might wish to see how far it can push the United States, moving on the assumption that the US is more likely to talk and compromise rather than adopt a decisive position on Yongbyon’s reactivation. If this is the case, a proposal might be coming from the North in the coming weeks.