1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
ConflictsNorth Korea

North Korean arms development puts Asia on edge in 2023

January 3, 2023

The regime in Pyongyang has started 2023 by threatening South Korea and announcing plans for more capable ballistic missiles and a larger nuclear arsenal.

A North Korean state media screen shot of a rocket
North Korea carried out an unprecedented number of missile tests in 2022Image: KCNA/KNS/STR/AFP

North Korea has begun 2023 with a series of missile launches and leader Kim Jong Un vowing to increase production of nuclear weapons and develop improved intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), according to statements carried by state-run news agency KCNA.

Kim has also declared that South Korea is the North's "undoubted enemy" and "hell-bent on an impudent and dangerous arms build-up."

South Korea has lived in the shadow of aggression from its northern neighbor since the 1950s. However, analysts have said the current threats and provocations emerging from Pyongyang should be a cause for deep concern.

Kim Sang-woo, a former politician with South Korea's left-leaning Congress for New Politics and now a member of the board of the Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation, said the security situation on the Korean Peninsula is again deteriorating.

"I think there is good reason for alarm because the North Korean regime looks at the current government in South Korea and sees that it is not nearly as agreeable to the North as the previous government," he told DW.

"I expect we will continue to see the North being more combative, as they have made it clear that they see the South as an 'enemy state,'" he added. 

A cartoon depiction of missiles in Korean
North Korean propaganda stamps showing missiles were released on New Year's EveImage: YONHAPNEWS AGENCY/picture alliance

The administration of South Korea's conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol, which took office in May 2022, has promised to take a tougher stance on North Korea compared with predecessor Moon Jae-in, who had embraced a more dovish policy on relations with Pyongyang.

Yoon responded quickly to the recent provocations, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff announcing on Monday the formation of a new directorate to develop responses to the North's missile and nuclear threats. 

The South Korean president also announced that Seoul is discussing the possibility of organizing joint nuclear exercises with the US

Kim aiming for 'overwhelming' military power

At a meeting of the Workers' Party of Korea during the last week of December, statements from which were first reported on January 1, Kim underlined the need to develop and deploy "overwhelming military power," claiming the need to protect the North's sovereignty.

Kim said the US and South Korea were attempting to "isolate and stifle" Pyongyang, according to KCNA.

The solution, Kim told his Cabinet, is a new ICBM "whose main mission is a quick nuclear counterstrike," along with the development of tactical nuclear weapons aimed at South Korea.

In December, the North announced plans to send its first spy satellite into orbit by April. There is also concern that work on the North's first submarine capable of firing long-range missiles is close to completion.

Black and white aerial photos
Images released by North Korean media were claimed to have been taken by a spy satellite over South Korea's western port city of Incheon Image: Yonhap/picture alliance

Analysis of satellite images of the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in North Korea indicate that work continues on the development of larger and more capable launch vehicles for both satellites and longer-range missiles, including solid-fuel booster systems.

"Compared to liquid-propellant weapons, solid-fuel missiles are more mobile, quicker to launch, and easier to conceal and use during a conflict," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

"Pyongyang's claim of testing a solid-fuel motor for longer range ballistic missiles supports its more aggressive, recently declared doctrine of using nuclear weapons if the Kim leadership or strategic assets come under threat," he told DW. "Once deployed, the technology would make North Korea's nuclear forces more versatile, survivable and dangerous."

And while missile launches in the latter half of 2022 may not have been "technically impressive," the fact that they were in high volume and took place at unpredictable times and from various locations "demonstrate that North Korea could launch different types of attacks, at any time and from many directions," Easley said.

A man and his daughter stand in front of a large missile
Kim Jong Un and his daughter pose for a propaganda photo in front of an ICBM Image: KCNA via REUTERS

North Korea's nuclear threat

North Korea is also widely expected to soon carry out another underground nuclear weapons test — its first since 2017.

Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank, told The Korea Times newspaper this week that he believes the North's seventh nuclear test will be timed to coincide with one of three important upcoming dates in the North. 

January 8 is Kim Jong Un's birthday, February 16 marks the anniversary of the birthday of Kim Jong Il, his late father, while February 8 is the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army.

Kim Sang-woo from the Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation said the North's announcement that it reserves the right to carry out a preemptive nuclear attack if it perceives a threat to the regime represents a concerning change in security philosophy.

The North had previously described nuclear weapons as a deterrent from attacks.

"I do not see this as an arms race on the peninsula, as the North has constantly been developing its nuclear capabilities even when they said they were not, but clearly there is reason to be concerned with the present security situation," Kim said. 

"And there is the very scary possibility that a conflict could break out if a small incident on the border, for example, quickly escalated," he added. "Because the two sides are not talking, something very minor could very quickly become a major crisis."

Did German research collaboration aid North Korea's military aims?

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

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