From September-December 2022, North Korea had its most active missile testing period in history, including a day in November featuring a 23-missile barrage.
Whether it was the technical need for testing systems under development, training for missile crews, capability demonstrations for international messaging or taking advantage of a permissive international environment (in which China and Russia have protected North Korea from United Nations Security Council sanctions), Kim Jong Un was unchained.
For US-North Korea relations, Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program is the alpha and the omega. The Kim regime has continued to produce fissile material for manufacturing nuclear warheads and has engaged in an unprecedented pace of missile launches – both activities in gross violation of international law.
This was accompanied not only by Pyongyang’s usual vitriol against Washington’s “hostile policy” and “war-mongering,” but also by increasingly strong statements that denuclearization diplomacy with the US is dead.
This dynamic was bookended by North Korea’s new nuclear weapons law in September (which refers to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons possession as “irreversible”) and a Korean Worker’s Party Plenum in December, at which Kim called for “exponential growth” of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
With denuclearization diplomacy apparently dead, the US-South Korea alliance has seemingly entered a phase of long-term nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis North Korea, a fraught situation holding many perils.
The testing spree began in the last week of September, when the North fired a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) toward the Sea of Japan (East Sea) on the 25th, then fired two more SRBMs into the same sea just three days later.
The proximate cause of the launches had something to do with events on September 23, when the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan arrived in South Korea to conduct joint exercises.
Those exercises would take place on the 26th, and if the tests themselves were not enough of a hint, the North’s representative at the UN on the following day said that the “security environment of the peninsula was caught in a vicious cycle of tensions and confrontations due to the growing hostility of the United States.”
On October 4, the North fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile (Hwasong-12 IRBM) over Japan, its first such launch in eight months (and the first over the Japanese archipelago since 2017).
Two short-range tests followed on October 6, two more on October 9, one more on the 14th (accompanied by around 170 artillery shots into the maritime “buffer zones”), plus more artillery shots on the 19th and two more SRBMs on the 28th.
These were not the only provocations the regime committed in October. North Korean state media reported on October 10 that missile activity had included the simulated use of its tactical battlefield nuclear weapons to “hit and wipe out” potential South Korean and American targets.
Then, on October 13 state media reported that leader Kim Jong Un had supervised the test-firing of long-range strategic cruise missiles involving units operating “tactical nukes” to demonstrate the country’s deterrence capabilities.
On the 14th, approximately 10 North Korean military aircraft flew close to the border with South Korea, prompting the South Korean Air Force to scramble F-35 stealth fighters and send other assets to the scene.
On November 2 North Korea launched a record barrage of missiles and artillery shells, with one SRBM flying across the de facto maritime border (NLL) with South Korea. This was followed up by North Korea firing an intercontinental ballistic missile and two short-range missiles toward the Sea of Japan/East Sea. (A South Korean defense source later called the ICBM launch a failure.)
Pyongyang launched three SRBMs toward the East Sea two days later, and one more on the 8th. South Korea scrambled around 80 planes after detecting more than 180 North Korean military aircraft active near South Korean airspace on the 17th.
On November 18, Kim Jong Un supervised the firing of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Unlike the November 3rd test and others earlier in the year, this launch of the Hwasong-17 – with a reputed range of more than 9,000 miles, sufficient to target the entire US – is believed to have been a success.
Kim Jong Un certainly treated it as such, stating that the firing of the ICBM was representative of North Korea’s “strategic force and its powerful combat performance as the strongest strategic weapon in the world.”
Kim Jong Un’s daughter, Ju Ae, apparently attended the November 18 ICBM launch. In December North Korean media showed her inspecting mass-production lines of nuclear-capable Hwasong-12 IRBMs.
Although much analyst and expert speculation centered on Ju Ae’s potential to succeed Kim Jong Un, a second symbolic message precluding denuclearization was as important: North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is intended to be bequeathed to posterity.
North Korea began the month of December by firing 130 artillery shells into inter-Korean maritime buffer zones.
On December 16 it then tested a high-thrust, solid-fuel rocket engine likely intended for long-range, nuclear-armed missiles – prioritized by Kim at the 8th Korean Worker’s Party Congress in 2021. If this technology succeeds, it will greatly enhance North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, whose liquid-fueled ICBMs are currently vulnerable on the ground prior to launch.
On the 19th, Pyongyang conducted a “final-stage” test evaluating the capabilities for putting a military reconnaissance satellite into orbit. A spokesperson at the National Aerospace Development Administration said the regime would finish preparations for its first military reconnaissance satellite by this coming April.
On September 9, while celebrating the 74th anniversary of the national founding, Kim told the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly that the country would resist any sort of pressure to give up nuclear weapons – calling North Korea’s possession of nukes “irreversible.”
On that occasion he went further, spelling out five conditions for carrying out a preemptive nuclear strike. These involve the use (or imminent use) of nuclear weapons by adversaries, lethal strikes on key North Korean strategic assets or other situations in which the North Korean state is threatened by a “catastrophic” event impacting the safety of its people.
This recalcitrant attitude carried through to an end-of-year Korean Worker’ Party Plenum, in which Kim called for “exponential” growth of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
Unsurprisingly all this has gone along with no evident progress on the diplomatic front for Washington or Seoul. The US reportedly made a dialogue offer in July through its New York channel but, as with other diplomatic offers since Biden’s administration commenced, there has been no response.
Instead, officials from the North have drawn a direct correlation between their actions and those undertaken by the US-South Korea alliance. Kim Song, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, has urged the US to suspend joint exercises with South Korea and claimed that South Koreans provoked its missile launches.
For good measure, a ruling party official has warned that the US and South Korea will “pay the most horrible price in history” if they attempt to use armed forces against North Korea.
Near the end of the year, Kim Yo Jong, younger sister of and frequent attack dog for Kim Jong Un, lambasted those who questioned the regime’s satellite development capabilities following its December 19 test.
She suggested that another, more threatening test would follow: “They will immediately recognize it in case we launch an ICBM in the way of real-angle firing straight off,” she said. “I think that they would be well advised to halt their nonsense and think twice.”
If there is any upside to all of this, it’s that South Korea and the US, even if irritated over trade-related issues, continue to speak in one voice regarding North Korea’s provocations. Virtually all of the tests North Korea conducted in the third trimester of 2022 were greeted by unified statements from US and South Korean representatives, and frequently Japan joined in.
Other statements – such as from the South’s People Power Party chairman Chung Jin-suk in October warning that North Korea seeks to break the US-South Korea alliance and calling for enhanced deterrence – indicate that South Korea’s view of the US as its security guarantor has not changed, and will not change while conservatives remain in the Blue House.
One of the biggest questions will be whether North Korea carries out its long-predicted seventh nuclear test, and, if so, to what extent it will display progress toward a reliable tactical nuclear warhead.
North Korea’s seventh nuclear test has reportedly been “imminent” since spring but has yet to take place in the face of US government warnings. The bad news is that whatever has prevented Pyongyang from taking that decisive step is not obvious to the outside world, and therefore it is impossible to say for certain that such conditions will continue.
Furthermore, signs at the United Nations indicate that Russia and China remain unwilling to authorize punitive measures against the North if it should test another nuclear weapon. That is unsurprising considering the state of Washington’s relations with Moscow and Beijing (with the US accusing the North of shipping ammunition to Russia to help it in its invasion of Ukraine).
While officials in Washington say they have begun preparing for “contingencies” and warn of untold “overwhelming force” that awaits the North in the event of a nuclear test, they remain mum on details.
The continuance of joint military drills – often in direct response to North Korean missile tests – is also indicative of Seoul-Washington cooperation. Under such circumstances, more of the same may be the best the alliance can hope for.
This year the US and South Korea are expected to conduct as many as 20 “realistic” joint drills in order to bolster deterrence and improve combined military readiness in the face of North Korea’s continued recalcitrance and threatening behavior. If drills in response to specific provocations by Pyongyang persist, 20 may be a low estimate.
But those drills show little sign of actually changing the North’s behavior if statements by Kim Jong Un, his sister and other government functionaries are to be believed.
Mason Richey is an associate professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul and a senior contributor at the Asia Society (Korea). Rob York ([email protected]) is the director for regional affairs at Pacific Forum and editor of Comparative Connections: A Triannual E-journal of Bilateral Relations in the Indo-Pacific.
This is the second of two pieces excerpted from the two authors’ original article in Volume 4, Issue 3 of Comparative Connections. It is republished with permission. Read the first piece, “US-South Korea alliance needs urgent repair,” here.