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.

Latest North Korean Missile Test Raises Eyebrows

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.

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.

North Korean Weapons Test Might Be Looming

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are now in Asia for discussions with their South Korean and Japanese opposites. US/South Korea military exercises are now underway in South Korea, and Pyongyang has resumed its cryptic rhetoric. The stage appears set for North Korea to conduct a weapons test to check the waters, so to speak, and to serve as a reminder to the US about what the future could hold if economic sanctions are not lifted. Ove the past 15 years or so, North Korea has traditionally conducted weapons tests and other types of provocative actions in the early days of new US and South Korean administrations. In light of the events mentioned above, and the fact that the Biden administration is only two months old, a weapons test by North Korea now would not come as a surprise.

On Monday, Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong released a rather cryptic statement. “We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off [gun] powder smell in our land. If it [the U.S.] wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.” The statement is the first official North Korean reaction since Joe Biden took office. The Biden administration’s attempts to resume talks with North Korea have so far been unsuccessful. Pyongyang has been radio silent, so to speak. However, with senior US administration officials now in the region to discuss, among other topics, North Korea, Kim Jong Un might decide this is a convenient time to stage a weapons test. A move which will serve to inform the Biden administration that more work is needed before discussions between the two nations can pick up again.