North Korea's Recent Missile Tests and Activity at Nuclear Test Site
The Pulse

North Korea's Recent Missile Tests and Activity at Nuclear Test Site

North Korea has tested more missiles since the beginning of 2022 than the last few years combined, including an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) on January 30 and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on March 24, effectively lifting its moratorium. Recent satellite images also suggest the resumption of activity at its nuclear test site, which had been formally shut down in 2018. In response to remarks made by the South Korean defense minister Suh Wook, Kim Yo Jong, senior North Korean official and sister of Kim Jong Un, warned Seoul that Pyongyang’s “nuclear combat force will have to inevitably carry out its duty” in the face of a military confrontation. 

Four experts share their analysis on the implications of North Korea’s recent activities. 

 

Chung-in Moon

Chair of Sejong Institute, Vice-Chair of APLN, and former Special Adviser of National Security and Foreign Affairs to the ROK President.

Judging from its past practices, North Korea is likely to take worrisome actions such as additional ICBM tests, test launching of military satellites, and a seventh nuclear test to celebrate the 110th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15. 

Why has North Korea recently become more assertive after four years of moratorium? Several factors account for the shift, the most critical being Kim Jong Un’s disillusionment with the United States. Kim Jong Un felt betrayed by the US since he received nothing but sanctions for his cooperative moratorium. His distrust of Washington has led him to place a great emphasis on self-defense. So Kim states: “Only when we possess formidable striking capabilities and overwhelming military strength that cannot be stopped by anyone, we can prevent war, guarantee national security, and deter and control all kinds of threats and blackmails by the imperialists.” Furthermore, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has likely reinforced his conviction in the deterrence value of nuclear weapons and missiles. 

The exchange of harsh words between South Korean defense minister Suh Wook and North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong portends a major crisis escalation much worse than 2017. Such crisis escalation could be catastrophic and should be avoided by all means. It is high time for preventive diplomacy, dialogue, and negotiations to be brought back in. The US needs to discard its futile policy of strategic patience and engage with the North actively to reopen channels of communication. A personal gesture from President Biden, along with signs of concrete incentives, will be essential for a breakthrough. Beijing should no longer remain a passive bystander and should cooperate with Washington in persuading Pyongyang to return to dialogue. The new government in Seoul also needs to take a more pragmatic and facilitative stance. Most importantly, Pyongyang should restore a more realistic and forward-looking policy. 

 

Gabriela Bernal

Korean affairs analyst specializing in North Korea and freelance contributor for Nikkei Asia, Daily NK, the Asia Times, The Diplomat, and more. PhD candidate at the University of North Korean Studies.

North Korea’s recent ICBM test practically marks the end of the Moon Jae-in peace era and signals the resumption of tensions on the Korean Peninsula once again. Given that North Korea has already terminated its moratorium on ICBM testing, it is highly likely that they will conduct a nuclear test as well, possibly even this year. With Biden distracted with Ukraine and South Korean president-elect Yoon showing no signs of interest in diplomatic engagement with North Korea, Pyongyang has relatively little to lose in conducting provocations. As North Korea’s provocations increase, Yoon and Biden are likely to beef up US-ROK cooperation, especially in terms of defense coordination. Both sides will likely continue to focus on deterrence of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, sanctions enforcement, and pressure. However, if North Korea does indeed conduct a nuclear test, then Seoul and Washington will be forced to find a way to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. For this to work, they will need to make sure they study the mistakes of the Trump administration and other, previous diplomatic engagements with North Korea to better grasp exactly what it is North Korea is demanding and what they are willing to give up in exchange.

 

Markus Garlauskas 

Nonresident senior sellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security within the Atlantic Council.

The United States and its allies should be concerned about the potential for renewed North Korean nuclear testing—particularly given Kim Jong Un’s January 2021 declaration that North Korea has been able to “miniaturize, lighten and standardize nuclear weapons and to make them tactical ones.” 

Testing of a lighter and smaller nuclear warhead, combined with continued flight tests of missiles with large payloads, could increase the credibility of North Korea’s nuclear threat to the United States and its allies. Smaller warheads would help North Korea to construct re-entry vehicles (RVs) small enough to utilize multiple RVs on a wider range of missile types, and more RVs on its biggest missiles—thereby increasing North Korea’s prospects of overwhelming missile defenses. 

In addition, if smaller North Korean missiles and even some of its artillery rockets could be proven nuclear capable with viable “tactical” nuclear warheads, the risk of nuclear escalation in a crisis or conflict would increase. Such weapons would give Pyongyang more options to initiate “limited” nuclear use. They would also blur the distinction between nuclear-capable and conventional systems, increasing the risk of misperception and unintentional escalation crossing a nuclear threshold. 

 

Na Young Lee

Director of Nuclear Security at the Korea Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation And Control (KINAC).

Despite declaring a moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests, North Korea has continued to test its missiles. So far, over ten tests have been conducted in 2022, and there is a high probability of nuclear tests in the near future. Recent international developments such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted many countries to reconsider their needs for self-defense. This situation could ultimately lead to a major crisis for the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. The war in Ukraine has forced the international community to realize that nuclear weapons are not a distant threat. This realization should lead us to acknowledge the importance of strengthening the international non-proliferation regime, which has largely prevented the proliferation of nuclear weapons at this level. Under current circumstances, measures to improve and strengthen the international nuclear non-proliferation regime should be further developed and made a priority at the NPT Review Conference planned for August this year.