Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 557, 6 October 2022

North Korea: Latest missile launch and the ensuing military drills in the Pacific Ocean
Avishka Ashok

In the news

On 4 October, North Korea fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile which flew over Japan and landed in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Pacific Ocean. The missile flew 4,500 km at an approximate speed of Mach 17 reaching an altitude of 970 km. The launch marks the first time in five years that a North Korean missile flew past Japanese territory. It is part of the recent military drill where North Korea launched over five missiles in the last ten days.

On the same day, the US and South Korea responded to North Korea’s missile launch by engaging in a precision bombing exercise involving a South Korean F-15K fighter jet and two air-to-surface missiles. On 5 October, the countries took part in a second exercise and launched four missiles. The Joint Chiefs of Staff said: “Through the combined flight of the air strike package and precision strike drills, South Korea and the United States demonstrated their will to respond sternly to any Northern threats as well as their capabilities to conduct a precision strike at the origin of provocations based on the alliance’s overwhelming forces.”

The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also held a meeting with the Foreign Ministers of Japan and South Korea to condemn the firing of the missile over Japanese territory. The countries raised objections against North Korea for violating multiple UN Security Council resolutions. Meanwhile, Japan raised alarm, suspended train services, and urged its citizens to take shelter.

Issues at large

First, the increasing threat to Japan and South Korea. In 2017, North Korea flew the ballistic Hwasong-12 missile over Japan’s Hokkaido Island. In the past five years, although missiles have not flown past Japanese territories, often they landed in Japan’s EEZ. The recent launch is a reaction to the trilateral anti-submarine drill held by the US, Japan, and South Korea on 30 September. Before the launch, the North Korean military also fired two short-range ballistic missiles to object to US Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the Demilitarized Zone between the North and South Koreas. In 2022 alone, North Korea has fired over 23 missiles signalling an increase in nuclear and military activities.

Second, the increasing technical capabilities of the North Korean ammunitions. Before the latest launch, North Korea had launched the same missile in January 2022. The missile flew 800 km at an altitude of 2,000 km and at a maximum speed of Mach 16. The Hwasong-12 first came to light in April 2017 when the test launch failed and exploded at the launch site. Following a few more failed attempts, the military successfully tested the weapon in May 2017. The missile is estimated to have a maximum range of 4,500 km with a 500 kgs payload.

Third, not just a regional threat. The threat from North Korea’s increasing technical capabilities is not limited to the region alone impacting South Korea and Japan; the recent missile’s flight range can reach the US strategic base in Guam where it conspicuously stores the nuclear-powered fast attack submarines and B-52 nuclear-capable bombers. The missiles also have the potential to reach US territories in Alaska.

In perspective

The increasing number of tests is a message to the US, South Korea, and other allies who have been urging North Korea towards nuclear negotiations. It seems unlikely that Kim Jong-un will cease the country’s nuclear program, especially after the legislature passed the law to ascertain its status as a nuclear power. Moreover, North Korea perceives the US to be a hostile country and believes that it needs to arm itself with advanced and high-tech ammunitions to protect its national interests.

The US, South Korea, and Japan have no choice but to keep up their counter drills and military exercises while urging North Korea to approach the negotiating table. Sanctions and forceful actions have proved to be unsuccessful and may not yield positive results given North Korea’s decisions in continuing its defence programs.

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