23.05.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

“Invisible” Launches and a Possible Nuclear Test: a Point of No Return is One Step Closer


There is a steady flow of allegations from South Korean and Western experts that the DPRK may conduct a new nuclear test in the very near future.

On April 28, 2022, speaking at a forum on “North Korea’s Army in the First Half of 2022”, Lee Sang-min, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said North Korea is likely to conduct a nuclear test between May and September this year, or in fact as soon as the rebuilt Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site is ready for it. The test may involve tactical nuclear warheads, such as a neutron bomb or an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) bomb.

Spokesperson at the US Department of State Jalina Porter said on May 6 that North Korea may be preparing to conduct a nuclear test as early as this month.

ROK National Intelligence Service chief Park Jie-won said on May 7 that North Korea may conduct a nuclear test between the inauguration of South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol on May 10 and US President Joe Biden’s planned visit to Seoul from May 20-24, noting that a possible North Korean nuclear test would likely involve small warheads. According to Park, the North has not responded to calls by China and Russia to refrain from conducting the tests.

On May 12, White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that the US believes the DPRK may carry out a new nuclear test as early as this month, most likely on May 20, ahead of Joe Biden’s visit to the ROK.

US Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haynes also believes North Korea will conduct a nuclear test before the end of the year; North Korean leadership’s efforts are aimed at changing the security situation in the region, allowing it to legitimize its de facto nuclear power status over time.

Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, also expects North Korea to continue building up its nuclear and missile capabilities this year in order to increase its leverage in potential negotiations with the United States. And “to demonstrate North Korean strength and resolve, leadership could consider further missile testing of various ballistic and cruise missiles, conduct a cyberattack, or test another nuclear device”.

ROK experts familiar with the author believe that the DPRK has almost completed work on miniaturizing a nuclear charge to create a lightweight nuclear warhead for a tactical missile weapon. Its power is estimated at several kilotons, its mass is 400-500 kg, and its diameter does not exceed 60 cm. Yes, it still needs to be tested, but if successful, North Korea will be able to equip its “Kimskanders” (KN-23), new SLBMs, KN-24 and KN-25 systems, as well as other short-range missile systems with nuclear warheads. In addition, the miniaturization of the nuclear charge is another step in the development of a warhead with multiple warheads for ICBMs.

Meanwhile, US website 38 North, which specializes in North Korean issues, notes that work on the reconstruction of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site is continuing. Satellite images show that work is underway to re-establish access to tunnel No. 3 by building a new portal and installing support structures. The area next to the portal has been levelled and reinforced. In addition, an auxiliary building has been built to the east of the new portal. Specialists at the portal have assessed the explosion potential of tunnel No. 3, which the northerners are now excavating. According to their conclusion, the DPRK would not be able to conduct a test on the scale of 2017, but the range’s capability and margin of safety to test the charge level of tactical nuclear weapons is quite sufficient. While the first and second tunnels, where nuclear tests were conducted, are quite difficult to repair, the third and fourth tunnels will be usable after minor rehabilitation work.

Missile launches also continue.  On May 4, 2022, North Korea launched a ballistic missile from Sunan Airfield near Pyongyang towards the Sea of Japan. The missile flew 470 km at a speed of Mach 11, reaching a maximum altitude of 780 km, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the ROK.

Some informed ROK sources reported that it appeared to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) fired from a high angle. Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Sejong Institute’s North Korea studies center, said the missile launch was similar to North Korea’s previous test launches for developing surveillance satellites in February and March, but much more advanced in terms of distance and altitude.

There were no other details; perhaps because, contrary to usual practice, the DPRK media wrote nothing about the launch, although it did not look like a failed test.

On May 7, North Korea launched a short-range ballistic missile, presumably a submarine-launched ballistic missile. The Joint Chiefs of Staff of the ROK said the missile was launched from Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province, towards the Sea of Japan, while the Japanese Ministry of Defense added that the missile flew about 600 km at an altitude of about 50 km.

The ROK media later wrote that the Gorae-class submarine (considered the only type capable of launching missiles among North Korean submarines) that fired the ballistic missile was one that had to be towed ashore due to an engine problem after an earlier missile test launch in October 2021, but no signs of any ship damage were found in the case of the 2022 launch.

The DPRK media remained silent once again, although the launch, two days before the inauguration of the new ROK president, was seen by many experts as a signal to which the new national security advisor, Kim Sung-han, had pledged to “come up with fundamental measures against North Korea’s provocations and actual deterrence capabilities against its nuclear missile threats”.

As for the reasons for the silence, Cheong Seong-chang felt it might be due to pressure from China, which does not want an escalation of military tensions on the Korean peninsula and thus worsening relations between South Korea and China.

On May 12, three missiles flew from the Sunan area into the waters of the Sea of Japan. The launch range according to South Korean data was 360 km, the altitude at apogee was 90 km and the speed was Mach 5. The latest tests are believed to have involved what the North calls ultra-large multiple rocket launchers, as the shots were fired at intervals of about 20 seconds (KN-25 by Western classification).

Naturally, Seoul and Washington condemned the launches as “provocations” and a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions. On May 5, Spokesperson for the US Department of State Ned Price even called it an insult to the UN, which has banned such actions: “The global community must send a message to the North that such provocations are unacceptable and will be followed by retaliation”.  The ROK Office of National Security, during an emergency meeting chaired by the new head Kim Sung-han, condemned the launch as a “duplicitous act following the pandemic”. In more concrete terms, on May 10 a task force began its work in the ROK to respond immediately to the North’s new missile launches. It includes representatives from the Ministry of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces.

In addition, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on May 11 to discuss North Korea’s recent missile launches, but was unable to adopt any document due to opposition from China and Russia. While US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas Greenfield urged that Pyongyang’s ballistic missile launch campaign threatens neighboring countries and it therefore is necessary to respond to its “unlawful behavior”, Chinese and Russian representatives accused the US of not reciprocating to the North’s steps towards denuclearization.  In the end, the issue was not even put to a vote for fear of a dangerous veto precedent, with Ms. Greenfield claiming that China and Russia had allegedly blocked all attempts to impose or tighten sanctions on North Korea for four years, “ensuring its illegal actions”.

Thus, for the first time, the attempt to impose additional sanctions was thwarted, and the significance of this will be discussed separately, but we may soon see whether this will give an impetus to an even greater confrontation. So far, the author feels, the point of no return is not yet under our feet, but not too far away either.

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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