Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Justin McCurry in Tokyo

Testing times: why North Korea’s missile launches should worry the west

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shares a joke with military personnel during the test of an inter-continental ballistic missile on 24 March.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shares a joke with military personnel during the test of an inter-continental ballistic missile on 24 March. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to North Korean missile launches – and much else about the secretive country – all may not be as it seems. Days after the regime claimed it had successfully tested its biggest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), South Korea said it believed the launch had been faked.

The “monster missile”, the South’s military said, was in fact a Hwasong-15 – a smaller projectile previously tested in 2017, the last time Pyongyang fired missiles potentially capable of striking anywhere on the US mainland.

Even if last week’s launch, accompanied by a slick PR video showing the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in a black leather jacket and aviator shades, was not of the more powerful Hwasong-17, there is agreement that the weapon flew further and higher than any other in the history of Pyongyang’s missile tests.

The timing is significant, coming as US president Joe Biden’s attention is on the war in Ukraine – a reminder that North Korea’s sanctions-busting development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons is continuing with alarming speed.

“Pyongyang might have thought it was safe to test more provocative weapons without drawing penalties while Washington and the world are preoccupied with Ukraine,” said Duyeon Kim, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

“North Korea usually has multiple objectives for every action. It may be gearing up for a tougher US-South Korea alliance after Yoon Suk-yeol’s presidential election victory while pushing ahead with preexisting plans to make hi-tech nuclear weapons as ordered by Kim Jong-un. It might also be aiming to mask any internal weakness through shows of strength before the North Korean people even if it has to be deceptive about them.”

Despite reports that a Hwasong-17 had exploded in midair over Pyongyang in mid-March, reportedly in view of shocked residents of the capital, every significant missile launch is partly intended for Kim’s domestic audience.

Kim Jong-un before the test launch of what was called a ‘monster missile’ on 24 March.
Kim Jong-un before the test launch of what was called a ‘monster missile’ on 24 March. Photograph: KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/Getty Images

While the country battles food shortages and attempts to revive cross-border trade with China wrecked by two years of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, Kim habitually uses weapons tests as an opportunity to demonise the US and reinforce the belief among the country’s 25 million people that their greatest existential threat comes not from economic mismanagement but from the “imperialists” other side of the Pacific.

Above all, the first launch of an ICBM since November 2017 was a reminder to the US that despite years of UN security council sanctions, North Korea is quickly becoming a legitimate nuclear-armed state that Washington will have to treat as an equal if there is to be a return to Trump-era summitry.

Although Biden has shown little interest in meeting Kim, North Korea can point to an increasingly impressive inventory of weapons, from a purported hypersonic missiles and smaller short-range solid-fuel missiles targeting South Korea, as an inducement to talk. In addition, analysts say the North could be planning another nuclear test – its seventh – to claim it has acquired the ability to produce a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on those missiles.

“The offensive arithmetic will be in their favour soon; they may be able to keep up with advances in American defences,” Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said after the recent ICBM test.

The North’s diplomatic calculation is the same now as it was when Kim signed up to a nebulously worded agreement to “denuclearise” the Korean peninsula at his first summit with Trump in June 2018, even though few analysts believed he had any intention of relinquishing his most effective deterrent and most powerful bargaining chip.

Pyongyang’s goal seems to be to strengthen its leverage so it can turn denuclearisation talks into nuclear-reduction talks in exchange for economic aid. “The message of the North Korean readout of [the recent] ICBM launch is clear: North Korea will continue to develop its nuclear arsenal,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee at the Washington-based 38 North programme, which monitors North Korea.

After a four-year hiatus, analysts say the ICBM test could be the opening gambit in a new phase of provocations reminiscent of the “fire and fury” days of 2017.

“A nuclear test is possible,” Hyun-Wook Kim, professor and director-general at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul, said, amid signs that work is under way to dig a shortcut to a tunnel at Punggye-ri, a nuclear test site the North “detonated” in 2018, weeks before Kim’s first summit with Trump.

“I think North Korea will use this opportunity to continue its military provocations as a way of getting something from both the US and China,” he added.

Duyeon Kim said it was “only a matter of time” before North Korea conducts a nuclear test, provided it stands to gain technologically or politically.

“North Korea has every reason to raise tensions on the peninsula to gain leverage ahead of any future negotiations with Washington and to be accepted by the world as a permanent nuclear power,” she said.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.