North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un continues to add to an already turbulent east Asia with repeated missile tests very close to Japanese and South Korean territory. The despot’s actions have drawn extensive condemnations from many world leaders, but there seems to be no signs of stopping.
On November 2nd, 2022, North Korea launched 23 missiles, which is the most the isolated country has fired in a single day according to the South Korean military. The launches continued the following day, as well. The missiles landed in a multitude of locations, including the Korean Peninsula, Sea of Japan, and, of particular interest, close to South Korea.
Of the many missiles deployed on November 3rd, many sources claim these included intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. As the name suggests, these warheads can carry a missile across great distances, possibly up to 3400 miles. While that is far from the 6200 miles between North Korea and the US mainland, that still puts several US territories, like Guam, at risk. Hawaii may be further than 3400 miles away, but if launched on a naval vessel closer to the island chain, it is very likely these missiles could reach it.
However, the South Korean government does believe these ICBM tests were failures, which provides solace to many. On the other hand, continued tests lead to greater understanding for North Korean scientists and engineers to improve their devices.
It is also important to note that North Korea does have access to nuclear weapons, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. These are only short-to-medium range devices, but they are thought to be over 100 kilotons. For context, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons and wreaked enormous and devastating damage.
This becomes even more concerning when one learns of Kim Jong-un’s mission statements for his nuclear program specifically, which according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, include: “Push ahead with the production of super-sized nuclear warheads; make nuclear weapons smaller and lighter for tactical use; raising the rate of precision good enough to strike and annihilate any strategic targets within a range of [about 9300 miles] with pinpoint accuracy; develop and introduce hypersonic gliding flight warheads in a short period; … the development of solid-fuel engine-propelled intercontinental, underwater, and ground ballistic rockets; [and] possess a nuclear-powered submarine and an underwater-launch nuclear strategic weapon.”
While it is difficult to gauge how far along North Korea is with any of these goals, its failure of ICBMs suggests that they have not yet developed technology sophisticated enough to achieve them.
Why is North Korea launching record amounts of missiles, though? It may have to do with the increased joint-military exercises between South Korea and the United States. This has been a common occurrence between the two allies, but in 2018, President Trump delayed any exercises from taking place in hopes of peace between the divided Koreas. Trump would then go on to hold summits with the North Korean leader with this same goal in mind. While, according to the graph below, no full-flight missiles were launched in 2018, this was the exception rather than the rule. Missile tests began again in 2019 and 2020, albeit both to a lesser degree than prior.
President Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol agreed to new joint-military exercises with the sole purpose of deterring North Korea. Naturally, the totalitarian nation would respond aggressively.
CNN, however, posits a differing view. They quote former Director of Operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Carl Schuster as stating Kim Jong-un wants attention drawn to him given the world becoming more focused on the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. He also says the Supreme Leader wants to provoke the US and its eastern allies to engage in a skirmish or possibly war.
It is impossible to know the true reason for the recent escalation, though these two theories remain very real possibilities. What is not hard to infer is the reaction from the US, Japan, and South Korea, as all of have made that extremely explicit.
Areas around Japan have become a common target for North Korean missiles, and evacuation sirens have been a reality for many. Just recently, a missile fell just shy of Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the ocean. Japan convened its National Security Council November 2nd in retaliation to these threats.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called the launches “absolutely intolerable.” Per Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, Japan cannot declare a war, but if attacked it can act in self-defense. Additionally, the US is obligated to come to its defense. If a missile hits Japanese soil or personnel, intentionally or not, both Japan and the US are automatically engaged in a war with North Korea.
The United States and South Korea stated November 3rd a firm and strict warning to North Korea.
The US and South Korean Defense Secretary and Minister stated, “Any nuclear attack against the United States or its allies and partners, including the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons, is unacceptable and will result in the end of the Kim regime. Both countries also announced more military exercises.
In reaction to this, North Korea’s state-run media stated, “This is a very dangerous and false choice.” They also say that due to the joint-military exercises, “…the US and South Korea is shoving the present situation caused by provocative military acts of the allied forces to an uncontrollable phase. The US and South Korea will get to know what an irrevocable and awful mistake they made.”
With an intense militarization of forces on both sides and equally strong statements from all parties involved, east Asia seems to be a fuse leading to a powder keg. China’s recent aggression with Taiwan only complicates the region even further, and with attention towards Russia and Ukraine, possibilities of war and extended conflict loom over the entire world.