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Why is North Korea firing so many missiles – and should the West be concerned?

Seoul, South Korea

Tensions are running high on the Korean peninsula as the United States and its allies react to a spate of recent North Korean missile tests, including one that flew past neighboring Japan without warning.

North Korea has fired six missiles in the past two weeks – a prolific number even in a year that has seen the highest number of launches since leader Kim Jong Un took power in 2011.

The aggressive ramping up of weapons testing has sparked alarm in the region, with the United States, South Korea and Japan responding with missile launches and joint military drills this week. The United States has also redeployed an aircraft carrier to waters near the peninsula, a move South Korean authorities have called “highly unusual”.

International leaders are now watching for signs of a further escalation, such as a potential nuclear test, which would be the hermit nation’s first in nearly five years – a move that would present US President Joe Biden with a potential new foreign policy crisis.

Here’s what you need to know about North Korea’s scramble for nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles, why they’re on the rise now — and what, if anything, the United States can do to counter Kim Jong Un.

The tests themselves are nothing new – North Korea’s weapons development program has been underway for years.

Tensions reached near crisis levels in 2017 when North Korea launched 23 missiles throughout the year, including two over Japan, as well as a nuclear test. The tests showcased weapons powerful enough to put most of the world within reach, including the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Relations thawed in 2018, when then-US President Donald Trump held a historic summit with Kim. The two leaders “fell in love,” Trump said; in return, Kim praised their “special” relationship. North Korea has pledged to freeze missile launches and appeared to destroy several facilities at the nuclear test site, while the United States has suspended large-scale military exercises with South Korea and other other regional allies.

But the talks ultimately broke down and hopes for a deal that would see the North scale back its nuclear ambitions dwindled by the end of Trump’s term.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, pushing North Korea even further into isolation. The already impoverished country has sealed off its borders entirely, with foreign diplomats and aid workers fleeing in droves. During this period, the number of missile launches has also remained low – only four in 2020 and eight in 2021.

How should the Biden administration handle rising tensions with North Korea?

Experts say there are several reasons why North Korea is ramping up testing so quickly now.

First, it might just be the right time after the events of the past few years, with Kim declaring victory over Covid in August, and a new US administration in place that has focused on shows of unity with South Korea. .

“They couldn’t test for several years due to political considerations, so I expect North Korean engineers and generals to be very keen to make sure their toys are going to work well,” said Andrei Lankov, professor. at Kookmin University in South Korea.

Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said it was also normal for North Korea to suspend testing during the stormy summer and resume once the weather improves outside. fall.

A television screen at Seoul Station in South Korea shows information about North Korea's ballistic missile launches on October 6.

But, several experts said, Kim could also send a message by deliberately showcasing North Korea’s arsenal during a time of intensified global conflict.

“They want to remind the world that they should not be ignored, that they exist and that their engineers are working around the clock to develop both nuclear weapons and delivery systems,” Lankov said.

Carl Schuster, former director of operations for the Joint Intelligence Center at US Pacific Command in Hawaii, echoed that sentiment. Kim “launches missiles to draw attention to himself, but also to pressure Japan and the United States to engage him,” he said.

He added that North Korea might also feel encouraged to act now as the West is distracted by the war in Ukraine.

A worker watches the launch of an F/A-18E Super Hornet aboard a US aircraft carrier in the Sea of ​​Japan on October 5.

“(The missile tests) started in January, which is around the time we were starting to report on what Russian President Vladimir Putin was dealing with in Ukraine,” Schuster said. “Kim Jong Un is doing what he thinks he can do – he doesn’t expect any strong American reaction.”

Lankov said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may also have boosted Kim’s confidence because “it demonstrated that if you have nuclear weapons, you can have near impunity.” And if you don’t have nukes, you’re in trouble.

Despite the swift military response from the United States and its allies last week, experts say there is little they can do to stop or prepare for North Korea’s weapons tests.

“The Americans sent the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan. The South Koreans launch these missiles, which don’t necessarily work well,” Lankov said, referring to a South Korean missile on Wednesday that crashed just after launch. “What is the impact of all these American aircraft carriers cruising around Korea? Virtually nothing.

South Korean and American warplanes fly over the Korean peninsula in response to the launch of a North Korean missile on October 4 at an undisclosed location.  , 2022 at an undisclosed location.

While these shows of force may serve to deter North Korea from “starting a war” — which probably isn’t Kim’s plan, anyway — it does little to prevent further developments in North Korea. ‘weapons or missile tests,’ he said.

“It will probably make some people in the United States and (in South Korea) a little happier, but it won’t have any impact on North Korea’s behavior and decision-making.”

A lack of solid intelligence also means the United States is largely left in the dark about Kim’s plans.

The North lacks the widespread use of technology that not only facilitates economic and societal progress, but also provides critical windows and opportunities to glean intelligence for the intelligence services of the United States and its allies.

“As a lot of what North Korea does is run by the leader himself, you really have to get inside his head, and that’s a tough intelligence problem,” said Chris Johnstone, senior adviser at the Center. strategic and international studies.

And on the international stage, US efforts to punish North Korea have failed due to pushback from Moscow and Beijing.

In May, Russia and China vetoed a U.S.-drafted UN resolution aimed at tightening sanctions against North Korea for its weapons tests – the first time that either the other country had been blocking a sanction vote against the North since 2006.

Kim led an aggressive weapons development program that far exceeded the efforts of his father and grandfather, both former North Korean leaders – and experts say the country’s nuclear program is at the heart of ambitions from Kim.

In September, North Korea passed a law declaring itself a nuclear-weapon state, with Kim promising to “never give up” nuclear weapons.

The law also demonstrated North Korea’s hopes of strengthening ties with China and Russia, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

An army tactical missile system is fired during a joint training session between the United States and South Korea October 5 at an undisclosed location.

After China and Russia’s open opposition to new sanctions on North Korea, Kim “knows he has their support,” Schuster said.

He added that Kim’s weapons tests serve a dual purpose: in addition to making a statement to the international community, they also boost his own image domestically and cement the regime’s power.

“It’s a very paranoid regime – (Kim) is as worried about his subordinates as he is worried about regime change from the outside,” Schuster said. With the tests, Kim tells his own senior staff, “We can deal with any threat the West, the United States and South Korea can come up with,” he said.

However, in terms of broader public perception, KCNA, North Korea’s state media, has made no mention of missile launches for months – since it last reported on a launch in March.

Lewis, the Middlebury Institute expert, added that North Korea will likely continue to develop weapons such as ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles until “they get to a point where they are happy with it – so I think they’ll probably express an interest in talking again.

The short-term concern is whether North Korea will launch a nuclear test, which Lewis said could happen “at any time”.

However, both Schuster and Lankov said that given North Korea’s friendly relations with China, Kim may wait until China holds its high-level Communist Party congress later this month – if that happens. product at all.

The party’s elite meeting is the most important event on the Chinese political calendar – especially this year, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping set to be nominated for a third term in office, cementing his status as China’s most powerful leader. for decades. .

Kim “is too dependent on Chinese aid to keep his country afloat,” meaning he cannot afford “to do anything to harm the Party Congress,” Schuster said. “So while China can’t tell him what to do…he won’t cause them any trouble.”

After October, however, the track is clear for any larger weapons test, Lankov said.

South Korean and US officials have been warning since May that North Korea may be preparing for a nuclear test, with satellite images showing activity at its underground nuclear test site.

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