Tensions between North and South Korea have not abated, and the advance toward the danger line is unceasing.
On November 9, North Korea launched a short-range ballistic missile toward the Sea of Japan. On the same day, the South Korean military announced that fragments of one of the North Korean missiles recovered the previous day in waters near the sea border were a Soviet-designed surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile SA-5 (S-200) (developed in the 1960s). It should be noted that despite its primary purpose of engaging hostile air targets, the missile can also be used to attack ground targets, which North Korea likely did by launching a missile on a ballistic trajectory.
On November 14, President Joe Biden said the United States would have to take certain actions that would be “more defensive” if North Korea conducted a nuclear test. He also made it “clear to President Xi Jinping that they have to try to make it clear to North Korea that it should not engage in long-range nuclear tests (sic!!),” otherwise those “more defensive measures” would be “directed at China” Xi Jinping, however, refused to accept the US president’s request.
On November 17, 2022, DPRK Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui issued a “stern warning” to the United States, Japan, and ROK, whose leaders decided on “legitimate and indispensable military countermeasures” at a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit.
On the same day, November 17, North Korea launched a short-range ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. Shortly before the launch, South Korea and the United States held “pre-planned” missile defense exercises involving Aegis-equipped destroyers.
The highlight of the week, however, was the November 18 launch of a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile that landed in international waters in the Sea of Japan.
According to Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada, the missile could fly 15,000 km and reach almost any point on US soil if it were not on an articulated trajectory. It is called a “monster rocket” because of its enormous size and is known to carry multiple warheads.
But it’s not just that. This was the DPRK’s SIXTEEN missile launch in 2022, an absolute record in all the years of nuclear missile crisis.
After the launch, Kim Jong-un declared that “the recent very dangerous situation in which an open military threat from the United States and hostile forces is observed in the zone near our state makes it urgent that we practically accelerate the increase of the suppressive forces of nuclear deterrence.”
In response to this launch, the South Korean military conducted its first attack exercise against a North Korean mobile launch base. This involved the use of F-35A stealth fighters dropping GBU-12 guided bombs. A B-1B Lancer strategic bomber joined the exercise a day later.
Political condemnation proceeded as usual: ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol directed the National Security Council to take steps to strengthen security cooperation between ROK, the United States, and Japan and ordered it to begin consultations with foreign countries on convening an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council and discussing additional sanctions against Pyongyang.
The White House was also highly critical.
On November 18, UN Secretary General António Guterres issued a statement in which he strongly condemned the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile by North Korea and called on Pyongyang to immediately stop further provocative actions.
On November 20, G7 foreign ministers issued a joint statement condemning the missile launch and calling on the global community to respond harshly to North Korea’s actions, including through the UN Security Council.
On November 21, North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui expressed “strong regret” over the Secretary General’s condemnation of the launch from the UN, calling the Hwasong-17 launch a “legitimate and fair exercise of the right to self-defense” against US military threats. On the evening of November 21, the United States reconvened the UN Security Council. It was the tenth session devoted to the DPRK, but this one also ended without results. Chinese Ambassador to UN Zhang Jun stressed that “the United States should take the initiative, show sincerity, make realistic and implementable proposals, respond positively to the DPRK’s legitimate concerns, and turn the dialog from a formality into reality as soon as possible.” The diplomat called on Washington to take practical measures to “stop military exercises and ease sanctions on the DPRK” to prevent the situation from escalating again or even getting out of control Zhang pointed out that the Security Council should play a constructive role on this issue and not always condemn or pressure the DPRK.
Anna Evstigneeva, Deputy Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN, also pointed out that “the reason for what is happening is clear: Washington’s desire to force Pyongyang to unilaterally disarm through sanctions and strong pressure.” In their view, “it is obvious that Pyongyang’s missile launches are the result of the United States short-sighted confrontational military activities around the DPRK, which are damaging both to its partners in the region and the situation in Northeast Asia as a whole.” At the same time, possible new sanctions threaten to create further tensions on the Korean Peninsula, “which could lead to unpredictable and dangerous consequences for the entire Northeast Asia region”.
What’s next? As Anna Evstigneeva rightly noted, the vicious cycle will continue to spin and this will likely not be the last DPRK launch in 2022. The North is expected to continue testing technologies that will allow ICBMs to carry multiple warheads and re-enter the atmosphere. Thus, there will continue to be missile launches, both for technological and demonstration purposes. In turn, Washington and its allies will try again, as they did in the spring, to bring up the adoption of new sanctions resolutions, but it is just as likely that the relevant steps will be vetoed by Beijing and Moscow as they were in May.
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.”