SEOUL – North Korea fired two missiles eastward today, (Janury 17), in what is becoming an intense barrage of test launches: It is the fourth since January 5.
According to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, two suspected short-range ballistic missiles were fired eastward from the area of Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport on Monday morning.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said the missiles flew about 300 kilometers, reaching a maximum altitude of around 50 kilometers.
Even though Sunan is one of the world’s least busy international airports, and North Korea is in deep border lockdown over Covid-19, the fact that the missiles were fired from, or close to, the civil facility – the rough equivalent of a missile being tested at New York’s JFK or London’s Heathrow – shows massive confidence, an analyst told Asia Times.
And even by the standards of North Korea, the tempo of recent tests is extreme.
Multiple missiles, multiple platforms
Although UN Security Council Resolutions ban the state from owning or testing ballistic missile technologies, Pyongyang routinely flouts the international community.
The secretive state tested a hypersonic ballistic missile on January 5 and another on January 11. The latter test was attended in person by state leader Kim Jong Un and appeared to have proven the ultra-high speed and defenses-evading maneuverability of that weapons class.
Experts told Asia Times that this class of weapon, in North Korean hands, is a potential game-changer, operating as an area-denial asset that could prevent US troops from reinforcing the peninsula in times of crisis.
Another test, conducted on January 14, featured rail-launched ballistic missiles, state media subsequently reported.
Trains are an unusual platform for missile launches, offering both survivabilities – the launch platform can shelter in railway tunnels – and mobility – the weapons can be conveyed around the country on the rail network, possibly disguised as civilian carriages, at a higher speed than on road-bound transporter erector launchers, or TELs.
Train-launched missiles were first tested last year.
The location of Monday’s missile launch – some 24 kilometers from the showpiece capital of the state, with its population of 2.8 million people – was highly unusual.
Only one such test is known to have been conducted from the airport before: A Hwasong 12 intermediate-range ballistic missile was fired in September, during the high tension year of 2017.
Given the potential for a poorly constructed or controlled missile to go out of control and crash in a densely populated area, the test shows a high degree of risk tolerance.
“This could be a signal of both resolve and willingness to accept risks,” Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based international relations expert at Troy University, told Asia Times. “If you launch this from near your capital, this shows ‘we know this works.’”
That confidence suggests an upgrade from testing to drilling – and from development to deployment.
“These missiles don’t need a tower or anything, all they need is an erector launcher,” Chun In-bum a retired South Korean general, told Asia Times. “They are confident, they have the procedures and they are showing they can launch at any time, anywhere – they are operational. This is no longer at the development stage.”
What is Kim thinking?
It is not only the variety and tempo of recent test flights but also their timing that has taken the world by surprise. Experts had expected North Korea to scale-up provocations in March this year.
That month follows the conclusion of the Beijing Winter Olympics and it was expected that Pyongyang would not want to irk its key benefactor by raising cross-Pacific tensions during the event.
A South Korean presidential election and joint South Korean-US war games are also scheduled for March.
One clue to the recent tests may be the lack of strategic messaging delivered over the new year.
“A lot of eyes were on Kim Jong Un giving a speech on New Year’s Day and nothing came out – all [North Korea] has been talking about is agricultural policies,” Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute, told Asia Times.
“Now, North Korea is following the absence of a statement with action.”
Most experts believe North Korea has both political and military reasons to test missiles – its most high-profile weapons systems, given that the state is nuclear-capable. However, it is far from clear at whom the Pyongyang leadership may be aiming its signaling arm.
“For the domestic target audience, missile tests send signals of strength and awe and national price and so forth,” said Pinkston.
Given the hardships, namely a collapse trade and fall in food imports, the North Korean populace is believed to have been suffering since the strict closure of borders early in 2020, the missile tests could be designed to bolster flagging national morale.
Another target audience lies south of the DMZ.
“You have South Korea which has a ‘lame duck’ president and an election coming up [on March 9], and there is a long history of trying to influence or intimidate incoming presidents,” Pinkston said.
And there are more varied audiences – including those in the global arms market.
“There are regional and international actors: China, Japan, the US, the UN, the international community,” Pinkston added. “And you could add potential buyers – like this is an ad campaign for missiles.”
Back in the news
With weapons of mass destruction being the state’s “sacred sword,” Chun, Go and Pinkston agree that Kim’s military has real reasons for tests. Multiple units and capabilities – moving missiles to firing points, fueling them, establishing command and control nets, launching – all need to be drilled, tested and monitored.
“There could be a missile unit near that airport,” said Chun. “And they have stated that they are going through inspections of their troops.”
Hypersonic missiles were mentioned, along with a range of weapons including submarine-launched ballistic missiles and tactical nuclear weapons, in a Five Year plan announced in January 2021.
These and other capabilities may be tested to put further pressure on Washington, North Korea’s key competitor.
“Their baseline strategy is to keep developing nuclear and missile capabilities,” said Go. “[US President Joe] Biden has not assigned any priority to North Korea, so I think they will wait until Biden feels he is compelled to reach out to North Korea.”
Mid-term elections in the US are set for November this year and Biden’s Democratic Party is looking increasingly wobbly. But whatever the exact thinking may be in Pyongyang, current indications are that North Korea has returned to provocative “business as usual.”
After successfully testing both nuclear devices and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the country launched a surprise diplomatic track in 2018. That saw Kim hold summits with world leaders, including then-US president Donald Trump. That track ran out of line in 2019, when a Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi fell through without a result.
Subsequent working-level negotiations led nowhere and North Korea went into deep hibernation during the Covid-19 pandemic, closing its borders to the outside world. Any hopes of a reset in negotiations fell apart after Trump’s re-election bid failed.
Meanwhile, multiple indications are that the country is suffering major economic pressures due to both sanctions and reduced border trade with China.
Due to all these matters, North Korea kept a generally low profile in 2020 and 2021. But its regional and global profile has been massively raised with the recent tempo of missile tests.
“This year, North Korea is back on track in terms of provocations and pressure,” said Go.
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