SEOUL – In its first global-facing action of 2022, North Korea this morning (January 5) launched a projectile eastward in what South Korean officials say is almost certainly a new missile test.
Seoul’s joint chiefs of staff said the object had been fired from a land-based platform at 8:10 this morning, though it is not clear yet whether the missile fired was a cruise missile or a ballistic missile. Under United Nations resolutions, North Korea is not allowed to possess ballistic missile technologies but it routinely defies those resolutions.
The object appears to have splashed in the Sea of Japan, which Koreans call the East Sea. As is routine practice after such events, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff responded with a bland message to reporters. “For additional information, the intelligence authorities of South Korea and the United States are conducting a detailed analysis,” the JCS said.
Strategic analysts were more forthright in their assessments. “North Korea is sending us a message that it is business as usual,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general told Asia Times. “Kim Jong Un has been very clear that he will concentrate on his economy, but at the same time will develop his military capabilities,” he said referring to North Korea’s leader.
Pyongyang tests weapons for reasons that are both military and political. In terms of timing, the test follows hot on the heels of both military and political developments: annual winter military drills and a December party plenum.
“They have been doing winter military training since last month … this could well be part of live-fire exercises,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based international affairs expert with Troy University, told Asia Times.
“They have been introducing a lot of new weapons systems and having a lot of meetings and discussions on doctrine and how these systems are to be used and how they are integrated into war plans. In that sense, it makes sense to have a live-fire exercise – it’s a safety and reliability issue,” Pinkston said.
But regardless of how essential tests are for troops, the timing is no doubt political. Channeling the North Korean leadership, Chun said, “It is, ‘Damn the Olympics, damn the new year and damn the starvation – my missiles are getting better!’”
Since 2018, when Kim Jong Un emerged from seven years of international isolation to embark upon a series of diplomatic engagements with the leaders of China, South Korea, the United States and Russia, his state has refrained from testing the kind of weapons that press Washington’s red button, including nuclear devices and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles.
That self-imposed moratorium had held even since 2019, when then-US president Donald Trump walked out of a high-profile summit with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Last year, North Korea tested a range of weapons that fall below Washington’s threshold of response but still menace its neighbors: cruise missiles, suspected hypersonic missiles and even train-launched missiles. The last missile test conducted by Pyongyang was a submarine-launched ballistic missile in October 2021, state media claimed at the time.
Today’s launch precedes sensitivities packing the regional calendar in the weeks and months ahead. The Beijing Winter Olympics kick off on February 4 and finish on February 20 – a period over which analysts don’t expect Pyongyang to undertake any actions which might irk its key benefactor, Beijing.
North Korea is believed to be suffering massive economic and nutritional difficulties due to the crushing combination of its self-imposed Covid-19 isolation and US-led international sanctions. As a result, it relies heavily upon China for essential supplies of fuel and food.
Tensions could soon rise on the Korean peninsula. A South Korean presidential election takes place on March 9, and joint military drills between South Korean and US forces are expected in March and April.
Asia Times understands that these drills have been rebranded and will be more low-key than in the past. Even so, they are certain to raise hackles in Pyongyang, which insists they are preparations for an invasion.
Meanwhile, the region is engaged in an undeclared arms race. While North Korea’s missile forces grant it considerable global relevance, both China and Taiwan are muscling up naval capabilities amid escalating tensions in the Taiwan Straits.
South Korea and Japan are also spending big on a range of military assets that appear aimed at deterring North Korean systems.
Seoul is developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles – albeit, conventionally armed ones. Japan, having decided not to proceed with a US-made Aegis ashore missile defense program in 2020, is reportedly mulling the adoption of a “first-strike” capability to deter exactly the kind of threat represented by North Korea’s missiles.
While such a high-risk system may stress the elasticity of Japan’s pacifist constitution, the country’s right-wing has been significantly strengthened following last November’s election for the lower house of the Diet.
That political shift signals a potentially more robust approach to defense and security than has customarily been seen in Tokyo.