North Korea appeared to have fired one of its biggest ballistic missiles in almost five years, adding to its largest series of tests since Kim Jong Un took power as he tries to force his nuclear arsenal back onto the Biden administration’s agenda.
North Korea launched a suspected intermediate range missile for the first time since 2017, according to initial assessments from Japan and South Korea. The missile reached an altitude of up to 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) and had a flight distance of about 800 kilometers, the two neighbors said.
The missile flew eastward for about 30 minutes and landed in waters outside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone, Japanese government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno said, adding officials are “currently conducting further analysis.” North Korea has already fired off more ballistic missiles this month than it did in all of 2021.
Sunday’s test provides a reminder to the Biden administration that Kim’s nuclear arsenal remains among the U.S.’s biggest foreign policy challenges despite former President Donald Trump’s decision to hold face-to-face summits with the North Korean leader. Although Kim made a vague commitment in 2018 to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” he has continued to advance his nuclear weapons program.
“Kim hasn’t had to pay the price for his actions, and he knows that especially now – with Covid, the Russia-Ukraine situation, brimming U.S.-China tensions, not to mention a South Korean presidential campaign season – the time is ripe for provocations,” said Soo Kim, a policy analyst with the Rand Corp. who previously worked at the Central Intelligence Agency. “Kim’s made it pretty clear that it will take something greater than sanctions to make him flinch.”
The flight path of North Korea’s latest launch would be consistent with a long-range missile, which Pyongyang hadn’t fired off since 2017, when Kim imposed a moratorium on such tests to facilitate talks with Trump. North Korea typically doesn’t comment on its missile tests until about a day after the fact, when it often releases images of the launch that weapons experts use to determine what exactly was fired off.
Matsuno and South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the test was a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. The latest launch could strengthen a U.S. call for Security Council action, adding to a squeeze on North Korea’s sanctions-hit economy that is smaller now than when Kim took power a decade ago.
“The series of North Korean actions, including the repeated launches of ballistic missiles, threaten the peace and security of Japan, the region and the international community,” Matsuno said.
The launch could be of a North Korea intermediate-range Hwasong-12 ballistic missile, weapons expert Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said on Twitter.
It's probably a 4,500 km-range Hwasong-12 IRBM based on the trajectory. Compare:
Hwasong-12 test on May 14 2012:
787 km range
2,111.5 km apogee
~30 minute flight time.
UI missile test on January 29, 2022
800 km range
>2000 km apogee
~30 minute flight time pic.twitter.com/5ZSIlgkACd
— Dr. Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) January 30, 2022
The Hwasong-12 was last tested in 2017 and could be used to strike U.S. military bases in Guam.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said it was aware of the North Korean test and consulting with South Korea and Japan.
“The United States condemns these actions and calls on the DPRK to refrain from further destabilizing acts,” it said, referring to North Korea by its formal name.
This month, Kim’s regime has set off a record volley of missile tests designed to hit South Korea and Japan, which host the bulk of U.S. troops in the region. These include hypersonic systems designed to use high speeds and maneuverability to evade U.S.-operated interceptors and the launch last week of two long-range cruise missiles that can fly under the radar, and with a range that can hit almost all of Japan.
Prior to the Sunday launch, Kim had threatened to end his hiatus on tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles designed to deliver warheads to the U.S. mainland. He told a top-level meeting of his ruling party at the end of 2021 that he was more interested in bolstering his arsenal than returning to nuclear disarmament talks with the U.S., which have stalled for nearly three years.
North Korea also resumed plutonium-producing operations at its main Yongbyon nuclear site last year, while satellite imagery showed it expanding a plant that enriches uranium for weapons.
Kim could use a national holiday on Feb. 16 marking what would’ve been the 80th birthday of his late father, Kim Jong Il, to show off his newest weaponry. Satellite imagery of Pyongyang showed signs of preparations for a military parade, the DongA newspaper reported, an event North Korea has often used to unveil its advances to the world.
Kim is facing one of the most difficult periods during his decade in power. His decision to close borders about two years ago due to the coronavirus slammed the brakes on the little trade it had, while flooding has wiped out cropland for the country which faces persistent food shortages.
But his regime has also found ways to evade sanctions, with the U.S. and UN Security Council accusing it of stepping up cybercrimes to fill its depleted coffers. North Korea’s hacker army launched at least seven attacks on cryptocurrency platforms in 2021 that menaced global players and netted the reclusive state almost $400 million worth of digital assets, a report from a blockchain research firm released this month said. –Bloomberg