On November 18th, North Korea test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that landed roughly 200 kilometers (130 miles) off the coast of Japan. Japanese officials have claimed the missile had sufficient range to hit targets on the US mainland.
North Korea shares a tense relationship with its neighbors, South Korea and Japan, as well as the US.
The missile test was condemned by international leaders.
US Vice President Kamala Harris decried the weapons testing, saying: “This conduct by North Korea most recently is a brazen violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
“It destabilizes security in the region, and unnecessarily raises tensions,” the Vice President continued.
North Korea has intensified its weapons testing efforts this year. Last year, North Korea conducted a total of eight missile tests. In the first month of 2022 alone, North Korea nearly exceeded this number, having launched seven projectiles.
By June this year, Pyongyang had already conducted thirty-one missile tests. Thus far, North Korea has carried out over forty ballistic and cruise missiles during tests this year. This is the greatest number in a single year since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un came into power in 2011.
The North Koreans have also been busy testing delivery systems. Specifically, research and development of rail-launched and submarine-launched delivery systems have been taking place. These launch methods might be able to better bypass missile detection and defense systems.
Nuclear missile capabilities
North Korea’s missile program is a concern for other countries because an ICBM could be armed with a nuclear warhead.
To date, North Korea has tested a total of six nuclear bombs. The last test was in September 2017.
That year, a nuclear device was detonated underground at the Punggye-ri nuclear testing facility underneath Mount Mantap. It was the most powerful nuclear weapon that North Korea has ever tested.
The intensity of missile testing so far this year has led some analysts to predict that a seventh North Korean nuclear test is imminent.
Understanding why North Korea has accelerated its missile testing this year is important. There are several possible motivations.
The presently chaotic state of international relations might be seen as an opportunity by decision-makers in Pyongyang. With US attention primarily directed toward the war in Ukraine, North Korea may feel more at ease about pushing the boundaries with missile testing.
The US military does have a sizeable presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Deterring North Korean aggression against allied South Korea and Japan remains a U.S. strategic priority. However, the U.S. also has to worry about the prospect of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
North Korea’s ruling Kim dynasty has long sought nuclear weapons to deter a possible U.S. invasion or attempt at regime change. North Korea would be at a significant conventional military disadvantage in a war against the U.S. and its allies, but Pyongyang believes the threatened use of nuclear-armed ICBMs could deter military action.
Nuclear weapons would also grant North Korea leverage over its rival, South Korea. The Korean Peninsula has been divided since the end of the Second World War. Having fought a war for control of the peninsula between 1950 and 1953, the North and South remain intensely skeptical of each other.
Members of the international community continue to push for a halt to North Korea’s nuclear missile program. However, a diplomatic solution does not appear likely in the near future.