North Korea Update: Possible Nuclear Test and Economic Trouble On The Horizon

There are growing indications that North Korea is moving forward with plans for its first nuclear weapons test in over four years. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been on the rise lately, though this has been underreported in light of the war in Ukraine. Last week, Kim Jong Un promised to continue development of its nuclear weapons “at the fastest possible speed.” This has prompted concerns that a test will be scheduled to disrupt the late May visit of US President Joe Biden to South Korea. Chinese and South Korea diplomats met in Seoul on Tuesday with China pledging to play a ‘constructive role’ in attempting to get North Korea to resume negotiations.

South Korea, with a new administration taking power on 10 May, is quite interested in deterring North Korea from escalating the situation. One element that appears to be coaxing the North along the slippery path it’s on at present is Russia. Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin have forged close ties over the years and the North is one of the few nations supporting Russia in its war without misgivings. In exchange for this loyalty, Russia could return the favor by blocking a UN effort to impose severe sanctions on North Korea if it does move forward with a nuclear test.

Having said this, it must be mentioned that the global economic fallout from Russia’s adventure in Ukraine and the recent COVID-19 outbreaks in China could hit the North Korean economy especially hard. Supply chain issues now coming into play will exacerbate food shortages. Inflation will also play a greater role. Food prices in North Korea often mirror global prices. With food prices rising around the world, the North’s prices are expected to do the same in the coming weeks, taking the country’s economic issues from bad to worse in the process.

North Korea Tests Its Newest ICBM

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.

At Victory Day Celebration Kim Jong Un Compares The Effect Of The COVID-19 Pandemic To The Korean War

As North Korea celebrates Victory Day, the 68th anniversary of the Korean War, its leader Kim Jong Il appears to be girding the nation, as well as the rest of the world indirectly, for what might lay ahead. At an address made before thousands of North Korean citizens Kim compared the global pandemic’s effect on the country to what it experienced during the war years of the early 1950s.  “We are faced with difficulties and hardship caused by the unprecedented global health crisis and prolonged lockdown no less challenging than how it was during the war.” He then went on to assure the populace that the future will bring better days. “Just like the generation of victors… our generation will continue this beautiful tradition and turn this difficult decisive period into an even greater new victory.”

In recent months, Kim Jong Un has not shied away from pointing out the urgency of the current situation for North Korea. As was the case yesterday, he has used his speeches to acknowledge the situation in his country. Part of this has stemmed from a desire to prepare the populace for more stringent times ahead. Along with this, Kim is also attempting to warn the world that without the suspension of economic sanctions North Korea faces a tumultuous future which could hold ramifications for the rest of the world.

South Korea has recognized the writing on the wall and extended an olive branch to Pyongyang. On Tuesday, Seoul announced that the Koreas have agreed to restore inter-Korea communications channels as the first step towards improving relations. Observers believe the North is also maneuvering to use the move as a stepping-stone to obtain aid to deal with COVID-19. In the past, the South Korea has expressed a willingness to provide vaccines to North Korea if requested. No such request has come from Pyongyang yet. However, with Kim likening current conditions in his country to what they were at the height of the Korean War, it might only be a matter of time before he reaches out.

Iran Announces 20% Uranium Enrichment and Seizes South Korean Tanker In The Strait of Hormuz

Iran has been busy on this first Monday of the new year. The Iranian government announced it has started enriching uranium up to twenty percent at an underground facility at Fordo, a town situated south of the holy city of Qom. According to the announcement, orders for the enrichment were given personally by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. As the announcement was being made, news broke that Iran had seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. The tanker, named Hankuk Chemi, was stopped by IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) naval forces for violating ‘environmental protocols’ and led to the port of Bandar Abbas. A short while later, the South Korean foreign ministry demanded the immediate release of the tanker, adding that South Korean forces stationed in the Strait of Hormuz were dispatched to the area. Tehran admitted to the seizure, yet hours earlier had said a South Korean envoy was expected to visit Iran in the coming days to negotiate the release of roughly $7 bn in Iranian assets now frozen in South Korea. The Iranian government is claiming it is seeking the release of the funds to use as payment for COVAX, a COVID-19 vaccine effort being headed-up by the World Health Organization.  

The two events have come to the forefront in a time of already heightened tensions between the United States and Iran. Of the two, the uranium enrichment is the more consequential. A decade ago, Iran’s decision to enrich up to 20% nearly brought on an Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. Now, returning to that same enrichment level brings on the risk of a US strike on Iranian nuclear sites. Added to this are the very recent threats Iran has been making against the US as the 1 year mark of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination. Last week, US B-52 bombers made a show-of-force demonstration in the Persian Gulf area as Tehran vowed attacks against US interests in the region. Last night, the Pentagon ordered the USS Nimitz carrier strike group to remain on station in the region. This came three days after the group had been ordered to leave.

North Korea Update: 3 May, 2020

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This has been a busy weekend on the Korean Peninsula. On Friday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in nearly a month, ending rumors and wide speculation that suggested the Supreme Leader had died as the result of a cardiovascular procedure early in April. Kim’s appearance at the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory north of Pyongyang has answered many questions, however, it is bound to create a new wave of them as well. Most of these will be about whether or not Kim recently had surgery, and what his present health condition is. The truth of the matter is that very few facts have escaped from North Korea aside from Kim being alive. On the subject of health, how North Korea is holding up in the midst of a global pandemic is unknown. Although the images, and video released on Friday show a relatively normal scene at Sunchon, there is growing concern that North Korea could very well be dealing with thousands of COVID-19 cases behind the propaganda wall put up by state media.

As if these issues weren’t enough to deal with, on Sunday North and South Korean troops exchanged small arms fire along the DMZ. There were no casualties or damage reported on either side. This was the first incident where the two sides exchanged fire since 2017. At the moment Sunday’s brief exchange appears to have been the result of an accident. Its timing though, provides plenty of food for the imagination. Some observers have openly wondered if there is indeed a tie-in between the shooting on the DMZ, and Kim Jong Un resurfacing.

Probably not. Kim Jong Un would probably prefer a more spectacular act of symbolism to show the world he remains in control of North Korea’s military. A ballistic missile test, or barrage of short-range rockets being fired into the waters off of the coast would fit the bill. If either one of those take place in the coming week, it will most likely be a direct message from Kim showing he has retained the control and loyalty of his armed forces.