What’s behind the sudden increase in missile tests from North Korea?

Global political instability has given it an opportunity to provoke its neighbours without fear of sanctions

Millions of residents of northern Japan will have felt a sense of deja vu on Tuesday morning when they were alerted to a North Korean missile flying overhead. Five years earlier, they had twice been shaken from their slumber by Japanese government warnings to seek shelter after missile launches by Pyongyang.

The intermediate-range missile involved in this week’s test was far from buzzing the rooftops of Hokkaido farmhouses — it flew at an altitude of 1,000km as it made its way to the Pacific Ocean, where it splashed down, without incident, more than 3,000km east of Japan.

However, it caused understandable anxiety among residents, even though its record-breaking flight was intended as a message not to Japan, but to the Biden White House.

As is the case with every other major display of North Korean military might (including the firing of two ballistic missiles on Thursday), timing and context are as important as any indication that the regime’s weapons are becoming more technologically advanced — and more threatening.


The consensus among Pyongyang watchers was that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, would avoid taking any action that could steal the regional limelight from China — the North’s main ally and biggest aid donor — as it prepares to hold a rare Communist party congress on October 16th.

But there are compelling reasons why Pyongyang has chosen Tuesday to launch a missile, believed to be a Hwasong-12, that is theoretically capable of striking the US Pacific territory of Guam.

It was a reminder that North Korea’s weapons technology is advancing — having flown further than any other missile to date — as part of a wider demonstration of the regime’s ballistic capabilities. It has conducted eight missile launches in just 10 days, and an unprecedented 40 so far this year, according to the UN.

It would be wrong to understate the role pure indignation plays in the North’s timing. This week’s tests come soon after the US and South Korea resumed large-scale naval drills that Pyongyang believes are a rehearsal for an invasion, and after a visit to the heavily armed border dividing the Korean peninsula by the US vice-president, Kamala Harris.

In strategic terms, Pyongyang’s more assertive behaviour is a consequence of global political instability that has given it an opportunity to provoke its neighbours without fear of inviting another round of sanctions.

The war in Ukraine has not only become a distraction for Joe Biden, it has opened the door to closer ties between Pyongyang and Moscow, while recent Chinese military activity in the Taiwan Strait has enabled the North to exploit rising tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The heady days of unity on display in 2017, when the UN security council, including Russia and China, imposed heavy sanctions on the North, are over. That much was clear in May this year, when China and Russia vetoed a resolution imposing new penalties on the regime.

That disunity means more serious provocations lie on the horizon, as the North continues to exploit Ukraine, Taiwan and a hamstrung security council to push its status as a legitimate nuclear state with the ability to target the US mainland with a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile.

As the Centre for Strategic and International Studies noted this week, previous sequences of North Korean ballistic missile tests have been followed by a nuclear test.

US and South Korean officials have been warning for months that a seventh nuclear test is imminent, while satellite imagery of a fully primed Punggye-ri testing site suggests the only question now is one of political timing.

“At this point, for Kim Jong-un to turn back and halt provocations would seem counterproductive to his interests, not to mention the amount of resources squandered to conduct these weapons tests,” said Soo Kim, an analyst at the Rand Corporation.

“We are in a cycle of weapons provocations. What’s left, essentially, is an intercontinental ballistic missile test and potentially the long-awaited seventh nuclear test.” - Guardian