28.03.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Awaiting New DPRK Satellites and New Sanctions

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Events have taken a new turn since the last report on the development of the DPRK’s missile program, focusing on the launch of two supposedly medium-range missiles. In addition to US and South Korean calls to “cease missile provocations and come to the negotiating table,” there have been clear signs of escalation.

On March 7, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi said an IAEA monitoring team had detected signs of the activity of a 5-megawatt reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex that is capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. “We continue to observe construction activities at the Yongbyon site, including construction of an annex to the reported centrifuge enrichment facility, the purpose of which has yet to be determined.” Calling Pyongyang’s continuation of its nuclear program a “deeply regrettable fact,” Grossi said that a new building was being built next to the light-water reactor under construction, possibly to support production or maintenance of reactor components. In addition, there are “persistent signs of activity” at the uranium enrichment complex, uranium mine and enrichment plant.

The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) later stated that “North Korea began laying the groundwork for an increase in tensions that could include ICBM or possibly a nuclear test this year.” “Kim probably will continue to order missile tests – including of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), cruise missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and HGVs (hypersonic glide vehicles) – to validate technical objectives, reinforce deterrence, and normalize Pyongyang’s missile testing”.

On March 8, the head of the US Northern Command, General Glen VanHerck, said North Korea might test a new intercontinental ballistic missile.  Such actions are a direct threat to the US and a demonstration of the North Korean leadership’s desire to limit Washington’s options in the event of a threat and military confrontation. The general also noted that in October 2020, the North introduced a new ICBM, which has much more potential than the one tested in 2017.

On March 9, the commander of US forces on the Korean Peninsula, General Paul LaCamera, noted that a series of North Korean missile launches demonstrated consistent development of missile technology, including successes in improving missile maneuverability. He noted that Pyongyang unveiled a new intercontinental ballistic missile in 2020 that surpassed the missile launched in 2017. LaCamera urged not to forget that North Korea’s missile capabilities pose a serious threat to regional and global security.

On March 10, 2022, the KCNA reported that Kim Jong-un was in charge of the National Aerospace Development Administration on the ground. Kim noted that the goal of developing and operating a new military reconnaissance satellite is among key defense projects, and the DPRK leader pledged that “many” military satellites will be put into orbit in the next five years.

The North’s state media last reported on Kim’s visit to the National Aerospace Development Authority in 2015.

On March 11, a day later, the KCNA reported that Kim Jong-un was in charge of on-site operations at the Sohe spaceport.   Kim reportedly assessed the condition of the range and instructed that it be upgraded to allow for the future launch of various launch vehicles with multi-purpose satellites, including a military reconnaissance satellite. Kim has ordered the expansion of existing facilities and the construction of new ones, including an outdoor launch observation point.

On the same day, the ROK media, citing defense ministry officials, reported that the DPRK had launched a new ICBM (the so-called “Hwasong-17”) on February 27 and March 5. This missile is under development and was first unveiled to the public at the parade marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party on October 10, 2020.

The Hwasong-17 is bigger than the Hwasong-15 launched in 2017, hence the nickname “Monster.” It is believed to be capable of carrying multiple warheads and is carried on a transporter with 22 wheels, compared to the 18-wheeled base for the Hwasong-15.

A day earlier, a senior Biden administration official said the same on the condition of anonymity.  The official said the Biden administration decided to share this intelligence widely to encourage allies and partners “to speak in a united voice to oppose further development of such weapons by the DPRK” because “these launches are a brazen violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions, vehemently raise tensions, and risk destabilizing the security situation.”

The main message of both messages was simple. Pyongyang has effectively ended its moratorium on ICBM launches and nuclear tests. With this in mind, the US intends to increase pressure on the DPRK by imposing additional sanctions on it.

The conservative media in the ROK have also begun to write that “such military provocations defy international efforts to ensure peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia. They are also in violation of inter-Korean agreements reached during the three summits held between President Moon Jae-in and Kim in 2018 and 2019.” The North was urged not to cross the red line.

At the same time, information was thrown in that Pyongyang had begun rebuilding the Phunggye-ri nuclear test site that it dismantled 4 years ago. According to the analysis of satellite images dated February 18 and March 4, US experts recorded construction and restoration work at the site. In particular, the erection of a new building at the site was noted, as well as the presence of significant volumes of timber used in the construction of structures, shafts and tunnels. In fact, this is the first such activity at the site since May 2018.

On March 14, South Korea and the United States detected signs that North Korea was preparing to conduct another ICBM test, and they were right.

On March 16, 2022, the DPRK launched an unidentified projectile from Sunan Airfield which, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff of South Korea, failed immediately after launch, exploding in mid-air on its initial trajectory. The failed launch was also reported by the Japanese broadcaster NHK.

It was the first failed launch since 2016-2017, when several Musudan medium-range missiles exploded in mid-air at once, and the North Korean media remained silent about the launch. But the ROK media noted that the latest launch, while unsuccessful, violated numerous UN Security Council resolutions, as well as Pyongyang’s moratorium on nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile launches.

On March 20, North Korea fired four multiple rocket launchers towards the Yellow Sea. It is suggested that the firing may have been part of a winter exercise by the North Korean armed forces.

Nevertheless, the South Korean National Security Council held an emergency meeting of deputy ministers on the matter, who stressed the need to maintain a “firm defense readiness posture” based on the enhanced capabilities of South Korea’s armed forces and the South Korea-US alliance during the transfer of state power. Moreover, in a March 22 parliamentary hearing, ROK Defense Minister Seo Wook noted that the missiles were launched from a point “far to the north” of the buffer zone in the Yellow Sea, which the two Koreas agreed to establish under their 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement.  Therefore, the firing is not a violation of the inter-Korean agreements.

As one can see, the situation is heating up. The fact that the DPRK will launch a satellite or an ICBM on Kim Il-sung’s birthday on April 15 is taken for granted, and there is intense discussion in Western power circles about the appropriate response. “I think the moratorium is as good as over. We should expect to see a return to ICBM testing,” writes US analyst Ankit Panda.

This author, however, wants to recall what he has said many times here and on other platforms:

  • accusing North Korea of violating something is, to put it mildly, incorrect. The DPRK declared a moratorium as a goodwill gesture in the hope that sanctions against the DPRK would be eased in return. But that did not happen, so the resumption of launches was a matter of time.
  • North Korean engineers have prepared many interesting things during the moratorium, and the launches may have more technical than political reasons. Since 2021, there have been increasing signs that the space program has been lifted from its pause. Back in 2021, it was reported that the DPRK was developing four new satellite models.   The DPRK’s need for an orbital constellation has gone nowhere. Now there are both the personnel and the opportunity to fulfil that need.

With the Ukrainian crisis and the US-China stand-off intensifying, the rift in the UN Security Council could intensify.  Whereas previously all the permanent members of the UN Security Council voted in favor of resolutions against the DPRK and there was only a discussion between Moscow, Beijing and Washington on what level of sanctions pressure would be present, but the very fact that sanctions for another nuclear test were necessary was not in question, in the current situation one can expect quite the opposite.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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