North Korean leader Kim Jong-un violated the spring 2018 moratorium on the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) by launching a Hwansong-17 projectile at Japan on March 24.
It is known that the rocket crashed 170 km west of the coast of Aomori Prefecture, outside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone and did not cause any damage.
The Japanese government urgently convened an operational headquarters to collect and analyze data on the DPRK’s alleged missile launch. According to preliminary data, the rocket remained in the air for 71 minutes, traveled 1100 km and reached an altitude of more than 6 thousand km.
Its southern neighbor also reacted to North Korea’s maneuvers. As President of the Republic of Korea Moon Jae-in confirmed that the moratorium had been violated, Seoul responded by launching a series of ballistic and cruise missiles into the Sea of Japan.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian military was monitoring the North Korean missile launch. He added that it is important to avoid actions that could increase tensions in another part of the world.
How long has North Korea been testing ICBMs?
North Korea has been launching intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the United States since 2017 – then it was Hwaseong-12, Hwaseong-14, Hwaseong-15. At the same time, the total number of launches reached its maximum in 2017 – 22, after which it fell sharply due to attempts to resolve the Korean crisis through diplomacy.
In April 2018, a moratorium on ICBM testing was introduced at the DPRK.
In 2021, Pyongyang’s effectiveness again reached a new level – in particular, the KN-27 anti-ship cruise missiles and the Hwaseong-8 hypersonic missile were tested, and a new long-range cruise missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads was also tested.
In 2022, in terms of the speed of missile testing, the DPRK has taken a very strong lead: the launch of existing missiles for the country is already the eleventh since the beginning of the year. But Pyongyang began to launch ICBMs exactly after the start of the Russian special operation in Ukraine – there were successful attempts on February 27 and March 5, and on March 16 they were unsuccessful (exploded, probably due to malfunctions in the engines of the first stage) at an altitude of 20 km, to the capitals near).
At the same time, the first two launches were in the form of a launch vehicle, which was tested to remove a potential reconnaissance satellite from the atmosphere.
And therefore, only today’s launch can be called the first unconditional launch of ICBMs and a violation of previous obligations.
Why did Pyongyang abandon the moratorium?
Clear hints that official Pyongyang no longer plans to observe a moratorium on the launch of ICBMs emerged on January 20. The Politburo of the ruling Labor Party’s Central Committee later met to review “confidence-building measures we have taken on our own initiative”.
“U.S. hostile policies and military threats have reached a dangerous point where they can no longer be ignored, despite our sincere efforts to maintain the general trend towards easing tensions,” state news agency KCNA said at the time.
Andrey Lankov, a professor at Seoul Kunming University, told socialbites.ca that he spoke openly about North Korea’s plans for a satellite and what it will do in advance in January 2021.
“Apparently, we are talking about the same rocket with an almost unlimited range at the time of launch – about 15 thousand km. This is the third model that could hit the Americas. And yes, this is the final break of the moratorium introduced in the spring of 2018. That’s what happened.
Many predicted that this would not happen before the end of the Beijing Olympics and the South Korean presidential election on March 9. Although I am inclined to believe that on April 15, on the birthday of leader Kim Il Sung, they will still wait and launch,” he said.
According to him, South Korea’s retaliatory missile launch could be considered “semi-symbolic” since it has no nuclear weapons. However, outgoing Chairman Moon Jae-in’s line towards the DPRK has only really tightened sharply in the last week.
How does this have to do with Ukraine?
At the same time, Lankov is confident that the current actions of the DPRK are directly related to the situation in Europe, where an armed conflict is developing. In his view, the breach of the moratorium could have occurred without Russia’s special operation in Ukraine, but “in other cases, the North Koreans would have acted more carefully.”
But now that the whole world is busy with Ukraine, no one will take any serious additional measures against North Korea anymore. It is clear that Russia and China will prevent the tightening of sanctions at the UN Security Council, and the United States is unlikely to react in any way to what is happening in North Korea. So they know that under the current circumstances there will be no reaction,” said the Korean scholar.
At the same time, Pyongyang will continue to develop its nuclear missile potential, including the events in Ukraine. According to Lankov, the DPRK draws important conclusions for itself.
“Recent events have shown once again that if you hand over nuclear weapons to the North Koreans it will hurt you,” Lankov said.
Can China Stop North Korea?
North Korea’s next actions will largely depend on the position of China, which can tightly control China economically. It is known that Beijing, at least, does not want Pyongyang to create full-fledged nuclear weapons.
“If China does not want more violence in the region, it will not, and if it thinks it is in its own interest, it will. It seems that China is not interested in this at the moment.
It should be noted that China and Russia as a whole are not very happy with the nuclear exercises of the DPRK; Until recently, China’s technical sanctions against North Korea were very strictly observed. It banned any supply of supplies for weapons of mass destruction to North Korea. However, other sanctions were not particularly complied with. This is because nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapon,” explains Lankov.
Also, China can keep in mind the fact that other actors, who are no longer particularly friendly, may also want to acquire nuclear weapons on the back of the DPRK’s success. We’re talking about Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, the rebellious province of China. Their ambitions could weaken Beijing’s position in the future.
“China does not want the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, it is extremely interested in maintaining this advantage. All this is distasteful for China, but they have to turn a blind eye to North Korea’s actions, but there is no joy there. So far, Beijing is not interested in climbing. But sometimes tactics override strategy,” Lankov concludes.