Global attention has been focused so intently on the Russia-Ukraine conflict that North Korea’s recent ICBM-related test—its first since 2017—didn’t grab many headlines. Yet it led the United States to increase surveillance activities and missile defense readiness.
U.S. officials revealed that two of Pyongyang’s recent short-range missile launches had used components of a large ICBM revealed during in a 2020 parade. North Korea has threatened since 2019 to resume long-range missile and/or nuclear tests, a message the regime reaffirmed in January 2022. Pyongyang has also begun repairing its nuclear test site, raising concerns of a major provocation that would escalate tensions, perhaps within the next few months.
North Korea conducted two missile launches, one on February 27 and one on March 4. Both missiles flew only to a range of 300 kilometers and an altitude of 600 kilometers. Pyongyang cryptically announced they were preliminary tests of a new reconnaissance satellite and included tests of “the high-resolution camera system, data transmission system and attitude control devices.”
The terseness of the North Korean announcement, with no information of the missiles, was atypical. During the spate of missiles launches in recent years, the regime has been very forthcoming on details and photos of the missiles.
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Even more unusual was the March 10 U.S. announcement that the events were actually the initial tests of the massive Hwasong-17 ICBM unveiled during the October 2020 parade. At that time, experts assessed that missile was capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads and would be the world’s largest mobile ICBM. Pyongyang subsequently confirmed that the missile would carry multiple warheads.
The U.S. assessed that the purpose of the recent missile launches, “which did not demonstrate ICBM range, was likely to evaluate this new system before conducting a test at full range in the future, potentially disguised as a space launch.” Given the short range of the flight, the tests likely included only one stage of the two-stage missile. For comparison, the three ICBM launches in 2017, which were flown on a lofted trajectory so as to not fly over Japan, flew to a range of 950 kilometers at an altitude of 2800 to 4500 kilometers.
The Pentagon spokesperson explained the uncommon decision to divulge intelligence information publicly and share it with allies and partners was to underscore that “the international community must speak in a united voice to oppose the further development and proliferation of such weapons by the DPRK.” An unidentified official commented that “unlike previous tests, Kim Jong-un had “tried to hide these escalatory steps.”
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command declared it had intensified intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance collection activities in the Yellow Sea. It also increased the readiness of ballistic missile defense systems in the region since the two launches.
The U.S. statements and disclosure of classified intelligence reflects a high level of concern about both North Korea’s growing capability to target the American homeland and the increasing potential for the regime to escalate to even more inflammatory actions.
The U.S. Intelligence Community assessed last month that Kim Jong Un will “continue efforts to steadily expand and enhance Pyongyang’s nuclear and conventional capabilities…periodically using aggressive and potentially destabilizing actions.” North Korea has begun “laying the groundwork for an increase in tensions that could include ICBM or possibly a nuclear test this year.”
After the collapse of the February 2019 U.S.-North Korean summit, regime officials repeatedly hinted the country’s restraint against major provocation would only last until the end of the year. In December 2019, Kim announced that he no longer felt bound by his 2018 moratorium against nuclear and ICBM tests. He warned that North Korea conduct a “shocking actual action [and warned] the world will witness a new strategic weapon…in the near future.”
In January 2022, Kim implicitly affirmed his threat to reconsider “the trust-building measures that we took on our own initiative on a preferential ground and to promptly examine the issue of restarting all temporally-suspended activities.” Pyongyang also emphasized the importance of “grandly celebrating” the 110th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung on April 15, suggesting the regime could conduct nuclear or missile tests on that date.
After a hiatus of missile testing in 2018, North Korea resumed with a record number of short- and medium-range missile tests in 2019 and additional five systems in 2020 testing. Additional missiles unveiled in October 2020 and January 2021 parades have yet to be flight-tested.
In January 2021, Kim announced a plan to develop multiple-warhead ICBMs, hypersonic glide warheads, tactical nuclear weapons, nuclear-powered submarines, military reconnaissance satellites, and long-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
After the most recent launches, Kim visited two satellite launch facilities and directed that the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground be upgraded to “launch the military reconnaissance satellite and other multi-purpose satellites by diverse carrier rockets in the future.” Kim emphasized the importance of developing reconnaissance satellites for both civilian and military purposes, including “improving the rapid counteraction capability of the armed forces.”
Also of concern are indications that North Korea may be preparing its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, dormant since 2017, for additional tests. South Korea announced that Pyongyang appears to be restoring underground tunnels at two of the four tunnels whose adits were partially destroyed in 2018. Recent commercial satellite imagery showed early signs of activity including repair and construction of buildings.
The Biden administration announced it would impose additional sanctions on North Korea “to help prevent [North Korea] from accessing foreign items and technology that enable it to advance prohibited weapons programs,” though without providing specifics. This would be the third tranche of sanctions that the Biden administration has imposed on Pyongyang. However, successive U.S. administration have all refrained from fully enforcing UN resolutions and U.S. laws.
North Korea has not launched a satellite since 2016, but Kim stressed in January 2021 the importance of “reconnaissance and information gathering based on operation of a military reconnaissance satellite in the near future.”
The Hwasong-17 ICBM could be used to launch a satellite, enabling Pyongyang to test its newest and largest offensive missile while potentially reducing the international reaction to an ostensibly civilian event. Similarly, the attitude-control system used in the recent launches could be the same system used to aim multiple warheads from a post-boost vehicle of an ICBM.
It seems to only be a matter of time before Pyongyang conducts a satellite launch, ICBM, or nuclear test, any of which would dramatically raise tensions on the peninsula. While the 2017 Hwasong 14/15 ICBM tests demonstrated the ability to target anywhere in the continental United States, the regime has not yet demonstrated the ability of its reentry vehicles to survive reentry into the earth’s atmosphere.
The Hwasong-17 could carry three or four nuclear warheads and, coupled with North Korea’s newly identified ability to indigenously produce large ICBM transporter-erector-launchers, risks overwhelming limited missile defenses of the American homeland. Currently, the U.S. is defended by only 44 Ground-Based Interceptors in Alaska and California, with plans to add an additional 20 by the late 2020s.
A Hwasong-17 launch that flew to long-range while successfully dispersing multiple reentry vehicles would have several negative repercussions. The United States would need to respond with additional unilateral sanctions and press the UN Security Council for further punitive measures. North Korea has often used such responses as justification for additional provocative actions.
Greater North Korean nuclear capabilities could undermine the effectiveness of existing allied military plans and raise further doubts in allied capitals of Washington’s willingness to risk nuclear attack to defend its allies.
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Attaining an unambiguous nuclear ICBM capability could lead North Korea to perceive that it has immunity from any international response. Pyongyang could feel emboldened to act even more belligerently and seek to intimidate the U.S. and its allies into accepting North Korean diktats.
Pyongyang could use the fear of nuclear weapons to coerce South Korea to accommodate North Korean demands that it, for example, end bilateral military exercises and reduce U.S. force levels. The regime could use threats of nuclear attack to intimidate Tokyo to preclude U.S. forces from using Japanese bases, ports, and airfields during a Korean conflict.
The Biden administration’s release of classified information reflects great concern about the current and potential future conditions on the Korean Peninsula. It may also be an attempt, as was the release of intelligence prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to cajole the international community into greater action to prevent further escalation of tensions.
The United States must ensure that it can protect the American homeland and U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific region against the growing North Korean nuclear and missile threat. Washington should engage with the newly elected governments in South Korea and Japan to coordinate policy planning, including improving comprehensive allied missile defenses and having sufficient offensive capabilities to reduce the number of North Korean missiles that are launched.
This piece originally appeared in 19fortyfive