North Korea Conducts Series of Missile Tests, Remains Undeterred to Participate in the Dialogue Process
Prof Rajaram Panda

The nuclear armed and the recalcitrant North Korea returned to the business of missiles testing with seven rounds of weapons tests in January 2022, the latest being on 30 January and the most in a single calendar month since autumn 2019, raising questions about what motivated Pyongyang to conducts tests at such a breakneck speed. On the surface, the series of testing is embedded within the military goals outlined at the Eighth Party Congress of January 2021, with most of launches being developmental or quality control in nature. A constellation of domestic and external factors have aligned to drive North Korea’s high-intensity campaign to extract some sanctions relief before any dialogue on denuclearisation process begins.

The signals are not very encouraging that dialogue for the peace process and addressing the denuclearisation issue can see any light. Two of the lunches, short-term ballistic missiles, on 27 January flew off into the sea off its eastern coast with no immediate danger to the neighbouring countries. These missiles were launched from the North’s eastern Hamhung area and flew about 190 km at a maximum altitude of 20 km. On 25 January, North Korea had lunched two cruise missiles. Last time North Korea had tested six missiles from July to August 2019. With the launch of 30 January, the tests in January exceeded the number of 2019, the most ever and the busiest testing calendar month in North Korean history, suggesting a new high watermark for the country’s missile development. While the cruise missiles were a new type publicly tested for the first time, the short-range tactical guided missiles have been publicly tested before.

The hypersonic missiles, the biggest since 2017, were fired as a cry for attention from the US which has imposed biting sanctions on North Korea. Yet it did not provoke a response from the US at all, implying that the US does not see such tests as issue of immediate concern. The US officials however were not so accommodating and reacted sharply. But coming close to the Beijing Winter Olympics starting from 4 February, the timings seemed odd. Neither the US nor Beijing saw these as a provocation. That was the official position of both. If China would have felt it as provocation, it could easily have kept the borders closed or shut them again but it did not. One reason could have been North Korea’s reaction to the suspected cyber-attacks from outside that hindered its limited contact with the rest of the world and disrupted its ability to run its other fundraising activities. [1] However, it is impossible for North Korea to identify who attacked them. Nevertheless, this argument stands weak, as Pyongyang’s objectives are larger, to send a message to the US. The bouts of sabre-rattling also aim to tighten internal unity amid the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and persistent economic woes stemming from debilitating sanctions.

The test conducted on 30 January was that of a North Korean Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) that could strike all of Japan and beyond, a rather provocative launch. North Korea confirmed the test, its accuracy, security and effectiveness of the operation.[2] Though the US seems to be not concerned immediately, it cannot remain oblivious of the fact that two of its important Asian allies – Japan and South Korea – are within range of North Korean missiles. There is a growing possibility that North Korea will test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile in the near future. If North Korea is not reined in, its actions could push the Korean Peninsula to the brink of nuclear war.[3]

By firing off a Hwasong-12 IRBM, one of the most powerful weapons for the first time since 2017, Pyongyang is inching closer to the end of Kim’s self-imposed moratorium on launches of longer-range weapons and tests of nuclear bombs. Japan claims that these IRBMs have a range of around 5,000 km, putting all of the archipelago and the US territory of Guam within range. Both Japan and Guam are home to key US military bases that would be used in any crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The distance from Pyongyang to a key US military outpost Guam is about 3,400 km and thus within range of North Korea’s IRBMs. As per reports the launch hit an altitude of about 2,000 km and flew roughly 800 km on a “lofted trajectory”. Though Japan and South Korea are embroiled in a bitter row over historical and trade issues, this time both roundly criticised North Korea’s missile launches. Japanese officials see a confrontational stance in North Korea’s behaviour and do not foreclose the possibility of a fresh ICBM or nuclear test in the near future.

Unlike Trump, Biden is being seen as soft pedalling, which in turn emboldens North Korea to provoke more to obtain some sanctions relief. Since Kim Jong-un unveiled a five-year plan to expand his atomic arsenal, including smaller tactical and super-sized warheads, as well as pre-emptive and retaliatory strike capabilities, enabling North Korea to use nuclear bombs to strike and annihilate targets 15,000 km away that includes Washington, Biden’s conciliatory/indifference attitude towards North Korea surprises and worries Japan and South Korea.

South Korean President Moon Je-in presided over a rare session of the National Security Council, the first in about a year, and said that North was seen as gradually moving towards scrapping its self-imposed moratorium on its nuclear weapons and ICBM tests.[4] Even US officials expressed concern over the tests and urged Pyongyang to join direct talks with no preconditions.[5] The tests are an unwanted headache for the Biden administration as it works towards a policy that stops Russia to invade Ukraine and tends to repair frayed ties with China. South Korea’s nuclear envoy held phone talks with the US and Japanese counterparts over the tests and explore the possibility to find a diplomatic solution, if possible, and see that North Korea complies with the UN Security Council resolutions banning such tests. [6]

Earlier on 17 January, North Korea tested two “tactical guided missiles”, days after it conducted a “short-notice” drill to test the country’s new railway-borne missile regiment. Before this, it had launched two “hypersonic” missiles. Such weapons systems are manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles that provide more options to the country for escaping missile defences.[7]

Interestingly, Kim was conspicuous by his absence from the missile test sites, except one on 11 January when the hypersonic missile test was conducted. It is possible that the media deliberately did not publicise Kim’s attendance even if he did, in deference to Chinese sensitivities, especially when the Beijing Winter Olympics was to start from 4 February. North Korean scientists and engineers have worked on Kim’s orders to develop such weapons. As a result, North Korea has tested “hypersonic” glide vehicles, train-launched ballistic missiles, a submarine-launched ballistic missile and long-range cruise missiles, among other capabilities.[8]

Reactions from the neighbouring countries were harsh as expected. While Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida condemned the launches and called “extremely regrettable”, Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi called it a “grave issue” for not only Japan and the region but to the world. Though the weapons landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone extending to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its coast, it did feel the heat. South Korea's National Security Council also expressed strong regret, saying the launches go against peace and stability in the region.

Tests of ballistic missiles, including launches of any range, by Pyongyang are banned under a series of United Nations sanctions resolutions. The resolutions, however, do not prohibit cruise missile tests. North Korea feels uncomfortable with what it calls America’s "hostile policy", particularly with US-South Korea military cooperation and their double standards over weapons tests and therefore defended its missile launches.[9] In accordance with the US-South Korea security alliance, the US has deployed about 28,000 troops in South Korea, a remnant of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty. Though President Joe Biden has regularly announced that the US is open to talks with North Korea without preconditions, North Korea’s recent ballistic missile tests have dented such possibilities. One tends to be less optimistic as North Korea continues to advance its nuclear ambitions and ballistic missile capabilities. Therefore, the US continues to urge North Korea to cease such provocations and to abide by international law and the UN Security Council resolutions so that some ways can be negotiated to deescalate the tensions.

The missile launches also demonstrated that Kim Jong-un is not deterred despite the country facing crushing sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic and these have done little to rein in Kim’s nuclear and missile ambitions. At times Kim has sent signals that it could continue its self-imposed moratorium on tests of nuclear weapons but could restart if talks with the US make no progress. It may be recalled that denuclearisation talks between the US and North Korea have remained stalled since 2019, despite the fact that then President Donald Trump held three summit meetings. All three failed to yield any positive outcome. Though Trump’s successor, Biden sent positive vibes expressing desire to unconditionally meet Kim with the aim to achieve complete denuclearisation, Kim dismissed Biden’s dialogue offer as a “pretty trick”. Seen from any perspective, it appears that Kim has no intention of relinquishing his nuclear arsenal, which he feels is the key to his regime's survival.
The US is worried that its defence systems would be incapable of tracking North Korea’s new missiles that provide little useful warning.[10] It demonstrates North Korea’s missile frenzy is partly aimed at pressuring the US and South Korea, which have called for the North to return to nuclear talks. Though the US has stated that it would “go anywhere” and “talk about anything” with North Korea, North Korea has refused to engage in talks, saying the US should first make military and economic concessions. Kim’s motivations also could have been to shore up domestic political support for suspected public dissatisfaction due to peoples’ hardship both for Covid-19 and curtailment on economic activities affecting their livings. Therefore, the series of missile tests could be more of political ploy than a diplomatic gambit. North Korea’s series of missile tests also could have been a cry for attention. [11]

The Covid-19 and a battered economy causing food shortages, besides diplomacy being stalled amid biting sanctions could have pushed Kim to a state of desperation and missile tests could have been an escape route to distract public and world attention. Since Kim does not have anything concrete to offer the people to ameliorate their sufferings, conducting missile tests are an easy way for him to confidently demonstrate his achievement. As Kim prepares to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the birth of his father, the late leader Kim Jong Il, later this month, as well as the 110th birthday of the country’s founding leader Kim Il Sung in April, the appropriate grandeur is politically crucial for him. On these occasions, Kim is likely to hold a military parade to show off the new weapons in his country’s possessions. These leave little hope for the dialogue process to commence. So long as both sides remain inflexible from their respective positions, no solution in the near term can be expected.

Endnotes :

[1] “N. Korea fires 1 apparent ballistic missile toward East Sea: S. Korean military”, Korea Herald, 30 January 2022, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220130000043
[2]Choi Jae-hee, “N. Korea confirms missile test of intermediate range Hwasong-12”, Korea Herald, 31 January 2022, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220131000100 |
[3] Jesse Johnson, “'Big dates, big fireworks': North Korea signals more launches as anniversaries loom”, The Japan Times, 31 January 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/01/31/asia-pacific/north-korea-missile-analysis/
[4] “Moon says North Korea inches closer to scrapping ICBM moratorium”, Korea Times, 30 January 2022, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2022/01/103_323128.html
[5] “US worried North Korea could return to nuclear and ICBM tests”, Korea Times, 31 January 2022, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2022/01/103_323137.html

[6] “South Korean nuke envoy holds phone talks with US, Japanese counterparts over North Korea's missile”, Korea Times, 30 January 2022, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2022/01/103_323130.html
[7]Jesse Johnson, “North Korea fires off more missiles as testing frenzy continues”, The Japan Times, 27 January 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/01/27/asia-pacific/north-korea-launch-jan-27/
[8] Chaewon Chung and Colin Zwirko, “North Korea says it tested long-range cruise missiles, ‘tactical’ projectiles”, 28 January 2022, https://www.nknews.org/2022/01/north-korea-says-it-tested-long-range-cruise-missiles-tactical-projectiles/
[9] “North Korea confirms latest weapons tests as Kim visits ‘important’ munitions factory”, 28 January 2022, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/north-korea-confirms-latest-weapons-tests-kim-visits-important-munitions-factory-2464701
[10]Ankit Panda, “North Korea’s new missiles create headaches for US defense systems”, 28 January 2022, https://www.nknews.org/pro/north-koreas-new-missiles-create-headaches-for-us-defense-systems/
[11]William Gallo, “N. Korea Launches More Missiles, Setting Record for Single Month”, 27 January 2022, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/dprk/2022/dprk-220127-voa01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3238%2eon0ao069c5%2e301p

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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