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SITUATION UPDATE 8 November, 2022 Back

Situation Update - North Korea missile launches

Alex Stone

North Korea missile launches

Summary

  • North Korea set a new record for the most missiles launched in a single day after firing as many as 25 missiles on 2 November. The following day, North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) which ultimately failed over the Sea of Japan, according to South Korean sources.
  • These launches continue an unprecedented rate of missile testing by North Korea throughout 2022, setting the record for the largest number of successful tests in a single year since first missile launch in 1984.
  • Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un declares North Korea a “nuclear state” amid speculation it intends to carry out its seventh nuclear test and first nuclear test since 2017.
  • US, South Korea, and Japan increase trilateral military integration, vowing “unparalleled” response to potential nuclear test.
  • Clamour for the development of nuclear weapons in South Korea is increasing in order to bolster defence and deterrence capabilities.

Situation

North Korea reportedly carried out a barrage of missile launches on 2 November, firing as many as 25 projectiles of varying types into international waters off of the Korean Peninsula’s eastern and western coastlines. One of the projectiles was reportedly a short-range ballistic missile that landed close to the South's territorial waters for the first time since the peninsula was divided in 1945. The following day, North Korea’s test launch of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) allegedly failed according to South Korean government sources after the projectile “disappeared” from radar over the Sea of Japan. Notably, the Hwasong-17 was first successfully tested by North Korea on 24 March following the end of a self-imposed moratorium in effect since 2017.

The incident followed a series of other notable escalations in the weeks prior. On 4 October, for example, North Korea reportedly conducted a ballistic missile launch that followed a flight path that took it over Japan’s Tōhoku region before landing in the Pacific Ocean. Days later, North Korean state media channel KCNA announced that Pyongyang had tested two long range strategic cruise missiles capable of being equipped with “tactical nukes”, although this has since been questioned. Significantly, the KCNA said that cruise missiles had already been deployed to military units, again an unverified claim. This was accompanied by reports that North Korea had fired 170 artillery shells off its west and east coast, landing within the maritime buffer between the two countries, as well as flying military aircraft within close proximity of the 38th parallel.

Together, the latest incidents exemplify what the UN has described as North Korea’s “marked acceleration” of its developmental weapons programme throughout 2022. According to the CNS North Korea Missile Test Database, North Korea has conducted at least 44 major missile tests so far this year, of which 27 were deemed successful. A further four launches are known to have failed whilst the outcome of another 13 are unknown. This represents the greatest number of launches, as well as successful launches, recorded in a single year since North Korea’s first known launch in 1984. Included amongst this was the launch on 5 January of a new generation of hypersonic missile with “superior manoeuvrability” capable of evading South Korea’s air-defence.

According to North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, the purported purpose of Pyongyang’s military acceleration is to secure its territorial integrity and defence capabilities ahead of what he identified in March 2022 to be a forthcoming “long confrontation” with the US and its regional allies, South Korea and Japan.

Analysis

North Korea’s recent flurry of military activity has naturally heightened tensions both across the Korean Peninsula and between Pyongyang and Washington. In a bid to arrest this and curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, the administration of US President Joe Biden has expressed its desire both publicly and privately restart stalled denuclearisation talks “without any conditions”. However, Pyongyang has previously rejected any diplomatic solution that relies on concessions until US and UN sanctions are lifted, an unlikely prospect. Combined with the March election of conservative Yoon Suk-yeol as South Korea’s president with a mandate to pursue a tougher “reset” of relations with North Korea and China, a diplomatic solution appears slim. Consequently, the US and the West may seek to impose sanctions on North Korea in order to stabilise the fragile security situation.

Since 2006, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has adopted at least 13 resolutions sanctioning North Korea for developing nuclear weapons, with these involving bans on the trade of weapons and military equipment. The US and South Korea too have also adopted unilateral measures in the past, with these typically focussing on curtailing Pyongyang’s economic activities. Notably, South Korea imposed unilateral sanctions on over 30 North Korean individuals and institutions in October for the first time in over five years, whilst US sanctions in 2017 were claimed to have denied Pyongyang more than one billion USD in trade.

The relative success this will have though is debatable. Indeed, North Korea has proven itself astute at skirting international sanctions, with its recent military advancement coming in spite of already stringent UN sanctions impacting vital revenue streams such as coal, iron, lead, and textile exports. According to a UN panel of experts, North Korea is believed to have achieved this by illicitly importing goods such as refined petroleum, as well as through “malicious cyber activities”. A report issued by cybersecurity firm Chainalysis in January 2022, for example, revealed Pyongyang appropriated more than 400 million USD of digital assets in 2021 during attacks on cryptocurrency platforms dispersed across Asia, Europe, and North America. Pyongyang has denied these accusations.

In China and Russia, North Korea has also found two ardent allies that have shown themselves willing to impede UNSC attempts to stimy its weapons programme further. In May, for example, both Russia and China vetoed proposed sanctions on Pyongyang’s tobacco and oil exports during a meeting of UNSC arguing that sanctions were both “ineffective and inhumane” and would lead only to “escalation and confrontation”. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine too makes a reversal of this stance unlikely, with Russia’s international isolation facilitating a burgeoning relationship with North Korea that is not constrained by the need, as is so often the case with China, to cooperate with the US for economic purposes. North Korea’s isolation from the global economy too, with China accounting for 90% of all pre-pandemic trade, has made sanctions an ineffective tool.

Consequently, the US, South Korea, and Japan may seek to combat North Korea’s militarisation through a reciprocal militirisation of their own. Placing South Korea on a more combative footing, President Yoon has vowed to “normalise” deterrence as a legitimate means to confront North Korea. Exemplifying this, Yoon accelerated talks in July for the purchase of a 2.6 billion USD artillery interception system akin to that of the Israeli “Iron Dome”, whilst in October South Korea's navy fired several warning shots at a North Korean merchant vessel in response to an alleged intrusion on the Northern Limit Line (NLL) maritime border. This may equally extend to the strengthening of trilateral US, South Korean, and Japanese military ties.

Following a flurry of missile launches in May, US President Biden met with his South Korean counterpart in Seoul, during which the two agreed to "expand" military ties in response to the "evolving threat" emanating from Pyongyang. Then on 7 September, diplomats from the US, South Korea, and Japan met in Tokyo to affirm their respective commitments to strengthen security cooperation against “provocations”. Specifically, this has coincided with a ramping up of joint military exercises. On 22 August, the US and South Korea launched the Ulchi Freedom Drills which were the largest since 2017 whilst in September, trilateral anti-submarine tests were held for the first time in over five years. Meanwhile, more than 240 warplanes engaged in mock attacks as part of training exercises in November codenamed “Vigilant Storm”. Notably, this included the deployment of at least one US B-1B supersonic nuclear bomber.

However, such drills are unlikely to force Pyongyang to yield from its current path and instead may result in yet another escalation of tensions. Indeed, on 7 November, North Korea’s military stated that the latest barrage of missile tests came in response to the collective “reckless military hysteria”, serving as a simulation in which it would “mercilessly” destroy US and South Korean military targets. Whilst this may therefore mean North Korean missile tests will decrease now that the “Vigilant Storm” exercises have culminated, there remains the potential for missile tests at any point, which in turn could cause disruptions to civilian life in both South Korea and Japan.

In response to the ballistic missile launched by North Korea that passed over Japan on 4 October, the country’s J-alert system issued evacuation orders in nine locations, resulting in significant disruption. The alert system was sounded once again in the prefectures of Niigata, Yamagata, and Miyagi on 3 November in response to the suspected failed ICBM launch by North Korea. During the alerts local residents were warned to seek shelter in strong buildings or underground facilities whilst bullet train services in the three aforementioned regions were also suspended. Meanwhile, air sirens were heard across South Korea’s Ulleung Island on 2 November, whilst broadcasts were temporarily interrupted. Similar alerts may be sounded in the event of future North Korean missile launches.

Another potential implication of Pyongyang’s recent military advancements however is the potential for a nuclear escalation. Amid reports that it is preparing to conduct its seventh nuclear test, and first test since 2017, Pyongyang took the “irreversible” decision on 9 September to pass a law declaring the country a “nuclear weapons state”. The new law would allow North Korea to utilise pre-emptive nuclear strikes “as a means of national defence”, updating its previous status of retaining nuclear weapons only until other countries had denuclearised.

Whilst the US, South Korea, and Japan vowed during three-way talks on 26 October an “overwhelming, decisive, and unparalleled response” to any such development, the ramifications may extend beyond this to include a broader nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. On 13 October, President Yoon stated he was exploring “various possibilities” when pressed on the prospects that US nuclear assets be deployed to the Korean Peninsula. This was echoed later on 3 November by Defence Minister Lee Jong-sup who said there is “no change in our denuclearisation policy” “for now”. Nevertheless, the two incidents exemplify the increasingly mainstream attitude to which the idea of a nuclearised South Korea is being entertained. Indeed, an opinion poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in February 2022 showed that 71% of 1,500 people surveyed said they support South Korea developing its own nuclear weapon while just 26% were against the prospect. A further 56% of respondents supported the deployment of US nuclear weapons.

Although to a far less extent, similar discussions are also underway in Japan. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for Tokyo to consider all options to “protect Japan and the lives of its people in reality”, including hosting US nuclear weapons. Whilst these comments came during an interview in March 2022 in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it again shows how the issue of nuclear weapons in Japan, once considered a non-starter, is gradually becoming a serious topic for political debate. Nonetheless, this may prove to be an unrealistic outcome in the short term, with a 2021 survey finding that 75% of Japanese want the country to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

Advice

  • Monitor local and regional sources for latest developments and announcements. In the events of further missile tests and air sirens, adhere to all instructions issued by authorities.
  • Travellers should familiarise themselves with local emergency protocols, including where to find the nearest air-raid shelter.
  • Be aware that military activity across the Korean Peninsula and the surrounding waters has the potential for travel and business disruptions.