May and early June 2022 saw the development of an aggravation trend, continuing the course described in a previous article on this topic.
On May 25, just one day after US President Joe Biden completed his Asian trip, North Korea fired three ballistic missiles. This was the 17th launch since the beginning of this year. All the missiles fell outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
South Korean military believes the first missile was the Hwasong-17, which was unveiled in October 2020 and has been tested since February this year. The second and third missiles appear to have been KN-23s, alias Kimskanders, known for their “pull-up maneuver,” a technique designed to avoid interception. The abundance of speculation and the dispersion of data between the South Korean and Japanese militaries may have been due to the fact that the North Korean media was silent again.
According to US intelligence, the DPRK’s May 25 missile launches may have been tests of re-entry technologies for warheads. The reason for these conclusions was the unusual trajectory of one of the missiles, described as a “double arc,” i.e. it gained altitude and descended twice.
On the same day, the first deputy director of the National Security Agency, Kim Tae-hyo, said North Korea was testing a detonation device for nuclear weapons. The test in question was carried out outdoors and was therefore detected by satellite surveillance. This is thought to confirm North Korea’s process of preparing for another nuclear test (probably a tactical warhead). However, its actual implementation requires a number of other activities: loading the nuclear charge into the tunnel, connecting the cables, sealing the shaft, etc.
The South Korean authorities have convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, chaired by President Yoon Suk-yeol. The head of state strongly condemned the provocative actions of North Korea, indicating his intention to implement strict deterrence and countermeasures coordinated with the US.
In addition, South Korea conducted major air maneuvers Elephant Walk (training 30 F-15K fighters with a full ammunition complement), conducted joint missile firings with the US for the first time since July 2017 (firing a Hyunmoo-2 ballistic missile and an army tactical missile ATACMS) and asked the US to deploy a US strategic force of B-52 bombers in the country.
The UN deplored the launch, and the US used it to push a draft resolution through the UN Security Council on May 26 that would increase sanctions on North Korea, including reducing exports of crude oil and petroleum products. In addition, the document included a ban on exports from North Korea of mineral fuels, mineral oil containing a mixture of hydrocarbons and products of oil distillation, watches, spare parts and other products. Furthermore, it was prohibited to import tobacco leaves and tobacco products into the DPRK, as well as to receive any information and communication technology or services from the North.
The UN Security Council met on May 26 and 13 members supported the resolution, but Russia and China exercised their veto power. The South Korean government deplored the undermining of global confidence in the Security Council.
From June 2 to 4, 2022, the US and South Korea held a major joint exercise involving the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan for the first time in 20 years. South Korean officials said the move was a warning to Pyongyang, which is believed to be about to conduct a nuclear test.
Pyongyang’s response was immediate. On June 5, North Korea launched eight short-range ballistic missiles. The launches are believed to have involved KN-23, KN-24 and KN-25 type missiles.
While there were no signs of a failed launch (indeed, simultaneous firing from four locations is rather a good sign of military organization), the DPRK media again wrote nothing about the now 18th “salute” since the beginning of 2022.
Yoon Suk-yeol then convened a meeting of the national security council, where he noted that the North had staged “provocations” about every nine days this year, and ordered the military to strengthen expanded deterrence by Seoul and Washington, including missile defense drills. The participants of the meeting saw the launches as a test of the new government’s security position at the start of its term and called on the North Korean regime to quickly realize that it has nothing to gain from nuclear and missile threats and to step forward for dialogue and cooperation.
On the same day, June 6, Ned Price expressed concern about the possibility of a seventh nuclear test in North Korea in the near future. This reaction from Washington came 24 hours after IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said North Korea may be preparing to conduct a nuclear test, noting signs that one of the mines at the Punggye-ri test site was open, which could indicate preparations for a test.
On June 6, the ROK and the US launched eight of their army ground-to-ground tactical missiles (ATACMS) as a sign of readiness to strike the military command and control infrastructure of the DPRK. The joint launch demonstrated the allies’ ability to deliver immediate, high-precision strikes against the sources of provocation and their command and support forces. On June 7, the Allies put 20 combat aircraft into the air over the Yellow Sea, including 16 South Korean F-35A, F-15K and KF-16 fighters, as well as four US F-16 fighters. “South Korea and the United States demonstrated their strong ability and determination to quickly and accurately strike any North Korean provocation,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. It is also known that the US has moved a squadron of four B-1B Lancer strategic bombers to Anderson Air Base in Guam. Each is capable of carrying up to 60 tons of bombs on board.
On June 7, ROK First Deputy Foreign Minister Cho Hyun-dong and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met in Seoul. Senior officials from the two countries condemned North Korea’s unfriendly actions and agreed to intensify strategic dialogue at the ministerial and deputy ministerial level, including the reactivation of the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG). The sides expressed their willingness to give a tough response if the North conducts a nuclear test and called on the North Korean leader to return to the negotiating table. Wendy Sherman also warned the DPRK of a “swift and decisive” response, should Pyongyang conduct a nuclear test.
At the same time, the US Special Representative for North Korea, Sung Kim, said that North Korea is preparing for a seventh nuclear test, which could be conducted at any time, and if it happens, the US and its allies will respond clearly and quickly.
Other US experts also say Pyongyang has completed the technical part of its preparations for a nuclear test. David Albright, director of the Institute for Science and International Security, told US media that Pyongyang had completed rebuilding the mines at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, and all that remained was to move the necessary equipment into the mines.
On June 8, Moscow and Beijing explained the reasons for the veto at a special UNGA meeting and again clarified their position. China’s permanent representative to the UN, Zhang Jun, said that in order to normalize the situation on the Korean peninsula, the US must go beyond words and take action, such as “easing sanctions in certain areas and ending joint military exercises.” Zhang Jun added that the measures against the DPRK are unprecedented and affect more than nuclear missiles.
North Korea’s ambassador to the UN, Kim Song, also condemned all previous sanctions, saying the resolution proposed by the US was “illegal” because it “violates the UN Charter and international law.” He recalled that Pyongyang’s arms modernization was the exercise of the right to defend itself against a direct threat from the United States.
To summarize, there are several points to be made about these latest events. First, the DPRK has stopped publishing reports on missile launches, which has significantly reduced the capacity of US and South Korean analysts. It seems that much of their perception of North Korea’s nuclear missile capability was based not on classified technical inspection data, but on pictures and photos of the KCNA, from which they tried to determine the type of missile and its tactical and technical characteristics. There are several explanations as to why the North changed the secrecy regime. According to the main one, despite the scale, the launches have a strictly military rather than a political purpose, being part of the KPA’s combat training as much as South Korea conducts its exercises, especially as the firing was not attended by any of the leadership.
The second point is that in the minds of US and South Korean politicians and experts the seventh nuclear test has already happened and they are openly discussing retaliation. A self-fulfilling prophecy or attributing your own thoughts to your opponent? Nah, we haven’t heard about it.
But that’s not what matters. What does is that the veto by Russia and China on May 26, 2022 is an event that has shattered the traditional world order built on the principle of non-proliferation and G5 unity on this issue. Previously, the thesis that the DPRK’s missile ambitions should be curbed by sanctions was non-negotiable. There may have been disputes over how tough the next resolution should be, but there was no question about the necessity of such a resolution. Now the point of no return has been passed and we are already living in a completely different world.
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”.