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PoliticsNorth Korea

Why are tensions rising on the Korean Peninsula?

April 19, 2022

Experts believe North Korea is ramping up demonstrations of its military power in a message to the US and to increase loyalty on the domestic front.

Kim Jong Un and military leaders at an undisclosed location in North Korea
Experts say the situation on the peninsula is not normalImage: Korea News Service/AP/picture alliance

Tensions are once again ratcheting up on the Korean Peninsula, with experts concerned that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is inching closer to a dramatic demonstration of his military power — either an underground nuclear test or the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

North Korean media reported on Sunday that Kim was on hand the previous day to watch the successful test-firing of a new tactical guided rocket system that is "of great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the front-line artillery units and enhancing the efficiency of the operation of tactical nuclear weapons," the North's official KCNA news agency reported.

Meanwhile, the launch of two projectiles was monitored by the South Korean military, which determined that they reached a maximum altitude of 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) and traveled 110 kilometers at a speed of Mach 4 before crashing into the Sea of Japan. 

US will respond 'responsibly and decisively'

Sung Kim, the US special representative for North Korean affairs, said in talks with his South Korean counterpart in Seoul, Noh Kyu-duk, that Washington remains open to talks — without preconditions — with the North. He cautioned Pyongyang, however, that the US and its allies in the region will respond "responsibly and decisively to the provocative behavior."

And while the launches are not as provocative as what would be a seventh underground nuclear test or an ICBM fired over Japan, they do continue the worrying uptick in threatening moves by the regime in Pyongyang. 

"The situation on the peninsula is not normal and there are a range of reasons why we are seeing this behavior from the North," said Ahn Yinhay, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul. 

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"A conservative government has just been elected in South Korea and it is very likely that the North will do something to test the incoming administration of Yoon Suk-yeol, to see its reactions and capabilities," Yinhay told DW. "The North carried out its third nuclear test in February 2013, just 13 days before Park Geun-hye was sworn in as president, so I fully expect something from the North before the end of this month."

Pyongyang will undoubtedly have been further antagonized by the start on Monday of a nine-day joint exercise between South Korean and US forces stationed on the peninsula. North Korea has long insisted that any exercises are a preparation for an invasion, while the outgoing administration of Moon Jae-in repeatedly scaled back or canceled numerous military drills in an attempt to mollify Kim's regime.

That effort to reduce tensions on the peninsula has failed to reap any benefits and the new Yoon government has already signaled it will take a firmer line on the North, and that its military will be better prepared to fend off any attacks.

Efforts to boost domestic loyalty

The posturing in Pyongyang is also designed to whip up support for Kim's policies, said Ahn. "This is a very important year for the North and the Kim family," she said. "This is the 10th year since Kim took power, 25th of April is the 90th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean Army and in February they marked the 80th anniversary of the birthday of Kim Jong-il, the father of the present leader," she added.

"That means that Kim has to show off his power to his own people. But he is also sending a message to the US and its allies because they are all focused on what is happening in Ukraine now," she said. "He feels North Korea is being overlooked and believes that a seventh nuclear test or an ICBM launch will mean he can no longer be ignored."

And while preparations are underway for a military parade in Pyongyang on April 25 to mark the army's anniversary, Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, says that Kim is also attempting to build national pride and legitimacy. 

"The public commemorations around its founder's birthday tried to portray an economy that is not only resilient, but also growing, and a society that is not only united, but also modern and happy," Easley told DW.

"State propaganda highlighted new apartments and citizens with smartphones taking pictures of flowers, fireworks, dancing and light shows, but this does not represent a shift away from North Korea's military build-up."

"Kim Jong-un's stated goal of deploying tactical nuclear weapons, Kim Yo-jong's recent threats toward Seoul, and satellite imagery of tunneling activity at Punggye-ri all point to an upcoming nuclear test," he added. "Additional missile launches are also expected for honing weapons delivery systems."

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Fears of an arms race

Easley also believes that the primary reason the regime continues to spend crippling amounts of its paltry national income on the latest weapons systems is because it senses it is locked into an arms race on the peninsula.

Such an arms race is an uphill battle, given that the South Korean military is backed by a "much larger and technologically sophisticated economy, as well as a superpower ally," he said.

Alongside pushing ahead with joint military drills, the US has deployed the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, and its accompanying fleet off the east coast of the peninsula, marking the first time a US carrier has entered the Sea of Japan since 2017.

With a complement of 80 aircraft and supported by an entourage that includes advanced Aegis destroyers and nuclear submarines, it is an unmistakable shot across North Korea's bow at a time of worsening tensions. However, Kim shows no inclination to dial back those tensions. 

In a commentary released by the foreign ministry, the North accused US President Joe Biden of triggering a "frenzy of weapons buildup" after he detailed a $29 billion (€26.9 billion) increase to the US defense budget for fiscal 2023. It appears likely that Pyongyang will use the actions of Washington and Seoul to justify its own military spending and development, even if it can't afford the cost of that arms buildup. 

Edited by: Leah Carter

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