Explainer: North Korean Missile Test Escalation

North Korea just fired a short-range ballistic missile from the Sukchon area of its South Pyongyang province on Wednesday afternoon — a potential reaction to the ongoing US midterm elections as Democrats and Republicans compete over Congressional control. 

While Japanese defense authorities are still investigating details surrounding the missile’s orbit, Japan’s Minister of Defense Yasukazu Hamada said that the missile flew about 250 kilometers at a low altitude of 50 kilometers or less, thus landing in the East Sea, otherwise known as the Sea of Japan. 

Sukchon of South Pyongyang province, North Korea to the Sea of Japan, where the latest Korean missile landed.

The launch threatens “the peace and security of our country, the region and the international community”, Hamada told CNN reporters. 

According to a CNN count, yesterday marks the 32nd day that North Korea conducted missile tests this year, including the firing of an SA-5 missile last Wednesday, which landed close to South Korean territorial waters for the first time since Korea’s division in 1948. Based on South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the missile landed about 26 kilometers south of the North Limit Line, the de-facto maritime boundary between North Korea and South Korea. 

Man looks out to North Korean Jangjae Island, seen from Yeonpyeong Island where the North Limit Line runs through. (Source: Getty Images)

Although North Korea had originally claimed last week’s missile to be a short-range ballistic one, more in-depth analysis on collected debris salvaged from South Korean waters concluded it to be part of a Soviet-era surface-to-air missile instead.

“This SA-5 missile launch was a clearly deliberate, intentional provocation,” said the South Korean Defense Ministry in a statement. “The SA-5 also has characteristics of a surface-to-surface missile, and Russia has used similar missiles in Ukraine for surface-to-surface attacks.”

In response to growing concern over North Korea’s increasing attacks, Japan, South Korea and the US have been stepping up joint drills and military exercises on top of carrying out their own weapon tests.

South Korean and US navies hold joint naval exercises. (Source: Getty Images)

During early October, for instance, the hermit nation fired a ballistic missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean, covering the longest distance ever traveled by a North Korean weapon, said officials in Tokyo and Seoul. In fact, the trajectory suggests that the missile was more powerful than Hwasong-12, another intermediate-range missile that North Korea tested back in 2017. Additionally, showing it could reach Guam, a small-scale American territory in the Western Pacific region which the isolated country threatened to attack with “enveloping fire” about 5 years ago. 

Screenshot of Google Maps location of the island of Guam (the red pin) in perspective to other nations. (Photo: Google Maps screenshot)

With this launch, four South Korean F-15K jets and four United States Air Force F-16 jets performed a joint drill, while firing two bombs at a target off South Korea’s west coast — a demonstration of how the allies’ could make precision strikes at North Korean missile sites. Such action, along with Japan, South Korea and the US conducting their first trilateral anti-submarine and missile-tracking exercises in September, may have only provoked North Korean escalation.

Background on North Korea’s weapons development program

However, North Korea’s weapons development program has indeed been going on for years, reaching a near-crisis level in 2017 when the nation launched 23 missiles on top of running a nuclear test throughout the year. Most notably, they exhibited their first intercontinental ballistic missile — the world’s most powerful strategic defense weapon curated by the Russians in the late 1960s. 

While former US President Donald Trump was initially successful in thawing such conflict through holding a landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018, talks depleted by the end of Trump’s term. 

US President Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un (R) in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Source: Getty Images)

Therefore, the hermit nation continued missile testing despite efforts by the UN to ban them from developing and testing ballistic missiles as well as nuclear weapons. 

Why is North Korea engaging in more missile tests recently?

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, North Korean missile launches remained at a low number: 4 in 2020 and 8 in 2021. But now that Kim Jong-un has declared victory against the virus outbreak in August earlier this year, they have resumed developments.

“They’ve been unable to test for quite a few years due to political considerations, so I’d expect North Korean engineers and generals to be very eager to make sure their toys are going to work well,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at South Korea’s Kookmin University, told CNN. 

South Korea holds ballistic missile drill in response to North Korea nuke test. (Source: Getty Images)

On the other hand, the growing escalation could be due to a change in US administration into one that has focused on unity with South Korea and Japan, countries with longstanding historical disputes with the hermit nation. North Korean state media has even pointed out that the allies’ “reckless military hysteria” is pushing the Korean peninsula into “unstable confrontation”. 

“They want to remind the world that they should not be ignored, that they exist and their engineers are working around the clock to develop both nuclear weapons and delivery systems,” Lankov added. 

Moreover, the recent Russian invasion in Ukraine could be another push factor in North Korea’s efforts to act while the West is distracted in other matters, analysts said. 

“(The missile tests) started in January, which is about the time we were beginning to report on what Russian President Vladimir Putin was doing opposite Ukraine,” Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Comamnd’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii, told CNN. “Kim Jong Un is doing what he thinks he can get away with – he’s not expecting any kind of strong US reaction.”

Feature image from Kurt Cotoaga on Unsplash

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