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ConflictsNorth Korea

Is North Korea building to another nuke test?

November 3, 2022

North Korea has fired 26 missiles in two days as the regime demands the attention of neighbors and the US. International observers fear that a seventh nuclear test at the Punggye-ri proving grounds could follow.

South Koreans watch a news report showing a rocket launching
South Koreans watched Thursday as the North sent rockets near JapanImage: Heo Ran/REUTERS

North Korea fired three more missiles into the Sea of Japan on Thursday, adding to the barrage of 23 missiles it launched Wednesday and serving, analysts have warned, as a prelude to another underground nuclear test.

One of the weapons, an intercontinental ballistic missile that was launched shortly before 7 a.m. local time on Thursday (2200 UTC Wednesday), is believed to have failed during flight — although not before the Japanese government issued a warning instructing people to stay indoors in three northern prefectures.

The launches have been condemned by Japan, the US and South Korea. Seoul was infuriated when one of the missiles fired on Wednesday crossed the Northern Limit Line, which serves as the maritime border off the east coast of the peninsula, and triggered the air raid alarms on Ulleungdo Island, the first in the South for six years.

In Seoul, the Joint Chiefs of Staff called the launches "a serious provocation that harms the peace and stability of not only the Korean Peninsula, but also the international community." South Korea's top brass added that the military would remain vigilant against further provocations

Woman walks past TV broadcasting a news report on North Korea firing a ballistic missile
North Korea fired 23 rockets on WednesdayImage: KIM HONG-JI/REUTERS

'A flagrant violation'

The US National Security Council released a statement saying it "strongly condemns" the North's ballistic missile tests, adding that they were "a flagrant violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions and needlessly raise tensions and risk destabilizing the security situation in the region."

The criticism is unlikely to dissuade the regime in Pyongyang from further launches and what would be a seventh nuclear test at the Punggye-ri proving grounds as Kim Jong Un demands international recognition as a nuclear state and aligns his nation more closely with China and Russia

"In addition to raising the stakes by firing missiles over Japan and over the inter-Korean maritime border, Pyongyang has been escalating its provocations with statements about how it may use nuclear weapons," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. 

"It has increased the frequency, number and diversity of missile tests while varying the time, location and platform of launches," he added. "Many of North Korea's missile flights are direct violations of UN Security Council resolutions, but its current provocation cycle is unlikely to peak until Pyongyang conducts its long-anticipated seventh nuclear test."

Easley said the Kim regime "may relish international anxiety" in the lead-up to a nuclear test that most analysts agree is now inevitable — "believing that greater global attention will hasten begrudging acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state." 

Missile launches also heap additional pressure on the administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, Easley said, and can be seen as a warning to Japan to stay out of matters on the Korean Peninsula. 

KF-16 fighter jets take part in Vigilant Storm joint South Korean and US air drills
North Korea's barrage comes as the US and the South conduct joint exercisesImage: Yonhap/REUTERS

Vigilant Storm exercises

Even before the missile launches, North Korea was blaming "hostile forces" — primarily the US and South Korea — for the deteriorating security situation in the region, comparing the joint Vigilant Storm military exercises in the South to the operation to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein 1990.

"The hostile forces' inordinate moves for military confrontation have created a grave situation on the Korean Peninsula,"  Pak Jong Chon, the secretary of the Workers' Party, said in a statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency.

He said the number of aircraft deployed in the Vigilant Storm maneuvers appeared to be "an aggressive and provocative military drill."

Lim Eun-jung, an associate professor of international studies at Kongju National University, told DW that South Koreans had been "deeply shocked" that the North had fired a missile over the border on Wednesday.

"Missile launches have been increasing since the start of the year, so these are perhaps not so surprising, but firing over the line is very provocative," she said. "My feeling is that they are trying to increase tensions as an excuse to go ahead with the nuclear test. They are looking for justification and claiming the threat is from the South." 

Lim also believes that, though Pyongyang still seeks direct talks with the US and to be treated as an equal, the deepening divide means that North Korea is far more closely politically aligned with Russia and China.

"The North Korean economy is struggling, and the people are hungry, and there is little hope in the short term for an improved relationship with the US," she said. "Pyongyang cannot afford to be entirely isolated, so Kim has decided to tie himself more closely with Russia and China as a new Cold War-style order emerges."

Munitions to Russia

The United States has claimed that North Korea is providing munitions to Russia and is sending laborers to the Russian-held districts of Ukraine to assist in rebuilding work there. In return, Moscow is understood to be shipping much-needed fuel and food over its border into the North. 

Washington is monitoring developments on the peninsula very closely and has also indicated that it anticipates a nuclear test in the coming days or weeks. And, though the North may see that as a demonstration of its power, the US has just made a similar statement of its own.

The USS Key West usually operates unseen beneath the Pacific Ocean, but on Wednesday it put into the South Korean naval base in Busan and has been pictured alongside a wharf. It will not have escaped Pyongyang's notice that the USS Key West carries Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles.

Edited by: Milan Gagnon

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea