Tensions are growing on the Korean peninsula as the United States and its allies respond to Pyongyang’s repeated missile tests, including one that flew over Japanese territory.
As of October 9, North Korea has fired 10 missiles in the past two weeks alone. 2022 is also the year Pyongyang conducted the highest number of missile tests since leader Kim Jong Un took power in 2011.
North Korea’s accelerated weapons testing is an alarming sign in the region, prompting the United States, South Korea and Japan to respond with similar action and joint exercises.
This week, the US also redeployed an aircraft carrier to waters near the peninsula – a move South Korean authorities called “very unusual”.
International leaders are watching for signs of escalation in the region, and anticipating a possible nuclear test. It would be Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in nearly five years – a move that could expose US President Joe Biden to the risk of a new foreign policy crisis.
The question is why North Korea has been so aggressive with missile tests in recent times and whether the West can do anything to prevent further steps of Kim Jong Un’s regime.
Kim Jong Un has spearheaded a weapons development program that goes beyond the efforts of previous leaders.
In September, North Korea passed a new law officially declaring it a nuclear state, in which leader Kim Jong Un pledged to “never give up” the nuclear weapons.
According to Carl Schuster, former director of the Pacific Command Intelligence Center in Hawaii, Kim’s weapons test served a dual purpose: In addition to making a statement to the international community, it also enhance the image and strengthen the domestic power of the North Korean leader.
“Kim is worried about his subordinates and changes from the outside. With the tests, the North Korean leader wanted to confirm that “we can deal with any threat from the West, the US and South Korea,” Schuster said.
In fact, however, state media KCNA has not mentioned the missile launches for months, since the last one in March.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Lewis, weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said North Korea is likely to continue developing weapons such as ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. until “getting to a point where they’re satisfied, after which they’ll likely resume their hopes of negotiating”.
Why did North Korea choose this time?
Experts say there are many reasons why North Korea has suddenly accelerated its testing.
First, this may be the right time after the events of the past few years: Kim Jong Un declared victory over the Covid-19 epidemic in August, and the US administration is focusing on showing solidarity with the country.
“They can’t test (weapons) for a few years due to many political factors, so I believe the North Korean engineers and officials are eager to test to make sure (their weapons) work” good,” said Professor Andrei Lankov, from Kookmin University, South Korea.
Besides, Professor Lewis also said that it is normal for North Korea to pause testing during the summer storm and resume it after the weather improves in the fall.
But some experts speculate that Mr Kim may also be sending a message to the world, in a time of growing global conflict.
“They want to remind the world that they should not be ignored, that (North Korea) engineers are working around the clock to develop both nuclear weapons and delivery systems,” Lankov said.
Schuster echoed this view, noting that the North Korean leader “launched missiles to attract attention, but also to put pressure on Japan and the United States to confront.”
He added that North Korea may also feel the need to act now, as the West is distracted by the conflict in Ukraine.
“(The missile tests) started in January, that’s when we started seeing the (movements on the Ukrainian border),” Schuster said. “Kim Jong Un believes that (North Korea) will not be punished. He doesn’t anticipate any strong reaction from the US.”
An imminent nuclear test?
The short-term concern is whether North Korea will conduct a nuclear test, which Mr Lewis said could happen “at any time”.
However, Mr. Schuster and Mr. Lankov both said that given the friendly relationship between North Korea and China, Kim will probably wait until the Chinese Communist Party congress ends at the end of October.
North Korea is “too dependent on Chinese aid,” which means it won’t want to “do anything to distract from the event,” Schuster said.
Meanwhile, since May, US and South Korean officials have warned North Korea may be preparing for a nuclear test, with satellite images showing activity at its nuclear test site. .
What can the US and its allies do?
Despite the swift military response by the United States and its allies over the past week, experts say they have few options to prevent or prepare for North Korea’s weapons tests.
“The US sent the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. But the US aircraft carrier’s close proximity to North Korea did not have much of an impact,” Lankov said.
These military displays can prevent North Korea from escalating tensions, but “it does not prevent Pyongyang from developing more weapons or conducting missile tests,” the expert explained.
Nikkei Asia also pointed out that North Korea’s recent missile launches correspond to the US aircraft carrier’s operating schedule in the area.
North Korea fired six missiles into the Sea of Japan during a time when the US aircraft carrier was conducting exercises with its allies in its international waters (known in South Korea as the East Sea).
The time Pyongyang fired two missiles on October 6 also coincided with the Reagan’s redeployment to the waters adjacent to the Korean peninsula. That shows that the military display of the US and its allies can hardly stop Pyongyang.
In addition, limited intelligence sources also make it difficult for the US to predict Kim’s plans.
North Korea has been largely closed off to the rest of the world for a long time. The technology is also not widely used in the country, making it difficult for US and allied intelligence agencies to gather information, according to CNN.
“Much of what North Korea does is directly under the leadership of the leader, so (they) really have to get to know his mind. And that’s a tough problem for intelligence operations,” said Chris Johnstone, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.