North Korea fired a pair of short-range ballistic missiles early this morning. The missiles were launched from positions near the southwest coast town of Jangyon, flew across the width of North Korea before landing off the east coast. The North Korean government calls these tests a show of force. They were the second tests to occur this week and took place as US and ROK forces conduct exercises on the southern half of the Korean Peninsula. The joint exercises have caused dissatisfaction in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Un’s regime has openly labeled the exercises as ‘frantic war preparations’ and warned North Korea’s armed forces to be ready to repel an attack.
Same old pattern, more or less. The US and South Korea conduct exercises and the North responds with a series of missile tests thinly veiled as a ‘show of force.’ Statements are released by Washington, Seoul and Tokyo reaffirm the tenets of the US-ROK-Japanese strategic partnership. Tensions lessen for a brief period of time and Pyongyang quiets down. Then a few weeks later the cycle begins all over again. In fact, by now the cycle is growing dangerously routine in the eyes of many in the United States, Japan and South Korea.
The wildcard is North Korea’s mounting food crisis, which is producing pressure on the domestic front. Weapons tests and tensions with the US and its regional allies provide a safety valve for Pyongyang to keep the focus of its citizenry on events outside of the North’s borders. As the government has found itself unable to solve the food crisis, it relies more and more on the external threat to keep North Koreans from worrying too much about the diminishing amount of food available. This cannot continue on indefinitely without running the risk of inadvertently sparking a regional war.
The UN and private relief agencies have been closely monitoring reports from North Korea concerning foot shortages since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is sweeping agreement that food shortages are growing worse inside of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, few experts or officials from either government agencies or the private sector are willing to predict the onset of another famine anytime soon. The North Korean government is growing worried about the country’s existing food stocks, however. A Workers’ Party meeting is scheduled to be held by the end of the month. Creating an improved agricultural policy is expected to be one of the main topics discussed.
As Kim Jong Un relentlessly pushes forward with his nuclear weapons program, keeping domestic support firmly behind him is essential. Domestic support in North Korea refers more to government officials with varying levels of influence rather than the general public’s backing. Nevertheless, if the number of North Korean citizens dying because of food shortages grows, Kim could find himself forced to throttle back on his nuclear ambitions. To prevent this from happening, he is looking for a plan that will resolve the food shortage or at least prevent it from worsening in the coming months. Specifically, Kim is looking for ways to increase grain production which has been negatively affected over the past 2 ½ years by pandemic-related restrictions at home, international sanctions, mismanagement and corruption.
Accepting large amounts of aid from the outside world is not an option Kim wants to be forced to consider. His government has followed a policy of self-sufficiency for years and having to rely on food shipments from external nation-states and NGOs would undermine his hold on power.
North Korea is becoming even more unpredictable. One day following a threat to take ‘unprecedentedly strong’ action against the United States and South Korea in response to the announcement of joint ROK/US military exercises, the North fired a long range missile that landed in the Sea of Japan and within the Japanese EEZ. According to the Japanese government, the missile was a North Korean ICBM that flew for just over and hour and reached a height of 5,700 kilometers. Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu claims the missile type used today had a probable range of 14,000 km, putting the continental United States within its range.
At the global security conference in Munich, ROK Foreign Minister Park Jin said the test is a clear indication of the North’s “intent to conduct additional provocations.” Jin went on to explain that a seventh North Korean nuclear test could prompt his nation to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in response. He labeled a possible nuclear test as a game-changer. Seoul has been growing worried in recent months over its neighbor’s unfettered nuclear ambitions. South Korea has lived under the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons since 2007. The more recent testing of ICBMs is directed more at the United States and to a lesser extent Japan. So, it comes as something of a surprise to see the South taking the threat of a possible seventh nuclear test by North Korea so directly.
With China becoming so assertive in the Western Pacific of late North Korea has turned into something of a wildcard. Its provocations and actions could inadvertently touch off a conflict and plunge the entire region into war. Or worse. The latest missile test also comes on the heels of indications North Korea could be on the verge of a severe food crisis. To take domestic attention away from the diminishing amounts of food, Kim Jong Un might decide to provoke the United States and its Western Pacific allies even more somehow and inadvertently provide the spark to a region already sitting nervously on a keg of dynamite.
One week after Groundhog Day came and went, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has emerged from the shadows in similar fashion after over thirty days of not being seen public. His reappearance comes as North Korea prepares to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army. The event is expected to be celebrated with a large military parade in Pyongyang. Kim will be in attendance, as well as most of the regime and military hierarchy. On Monday, however, Kim sat down with the Central Military Commission. According to state-run media in North Korea, Kim and his generals discussed “constantly expanding and intensifying the operation and combat drills and more strictly perfecting the preparedness for war.” In non-Communist propaganda terms this means large-scale military exercises will be held in the near-future as Kim looks to increase the readiness of his nation’s armed forces.
In 2022, the North behaved more aggressively than in recent years with dozens of ballistic missile tests coming over the last twelve months and increasingly bellicose rhetoric. Many observers are expecting the 2023 ballistic missile test season to commence shortly after Wednesday’s military parade in Pyongyang. Each year, Kim uses this event to display his newest military equipment to the world. Usually in the form of new ICBM prototypes which leave US, South Korean and Japanese observers wondering if they are legitimate ballistic missiles or nothing more than models.
Meanwhile, speculation continues regarding the date for North Korea’s next nuclear test. For nearly one year observers have been warning of preparations underway for a nuclear test in the ‘near future.’ No test has occurred, however, leaving many observers, government officials and analysts on both sides of the Pacific with egg on their faces and reduced credibility. Will there be a North Korean nuclear test in 2023? Perhaps, but it will materialize at a time of Pyongyang’s choosing.
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.