On Jan. 31, state media of the North Korean regime confirmed that it had tested a Hwasong-12 mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) the previous day. First revealed in April 2017, the Hwasong-12 is said to be North Korea’s most powerful missile.
Pyongyang has never tested this many missiles in a single month at any point in the past. The North Korean government also recently raised the possibility of abandoning its self-imposed moratorium on testing nuclear and long-range weapons that it had been observing for almost five years. The regime blamed Washington’s “hostile” policy for the change.
“The evaluation test-fire of Hwasong 12-type ground-to-ground intermediate- and long-range ballistic missile was conducted Sunday… [The test] confirmed the accuracy, security and effectiveness of the operation of the Hwasong 12-type weapon system under production,” state-run Korean Central News Agency said in a report. The test was carried out using the “highest-angle launch system” to make sure neighboring countries are not harmed in the process, the outlet added.
According to South Korea, Pyongyang is acting similarly to back in 2017 when tensions in the region were running high. The last time Pyongyang tested an IRBM was that year, when it first launched the Hwasong-12, a missile that experts say is powerful enough to attack the American territory of Guam.
On Jan. 30, South Korean defense minister Suh Wook visited the Army Missile Command to check his country’s readiness amidst the flurry of North Korean missile launches. “North Korea’s series of missile test-fires, including intermediate-range ballistic missiles, pose a direct and serious threat to us and a grave challenge to international peace and stability… We will maintain a full military readiness posture that can respond immediately to any situation,” Suh said.
‘Challenge’ to denuclearization
North Korea’s missile program goes hand in hand with its nuclear weapons development. To date, the North Korean regime has detonated six nuclear warheads in tests starting in 2006.
South Korean President Moon Jae-In called the Jan. 30 missile test a “challenge” for the international efforts to denuclearize North Korea. The Hwasong-12 missile is said to have traveled at a speed of up to 16 times the speed of sound in the most recent test.
Ballistic missiles tend to travel at hypersonic speeds (above Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound), but the term “hypersonic missile” is generally reserved for modern weapons that are highly maneuverable and therefore difficult to defend against.
One senior U.S. administration official revealed that Washington is worried about North Korea resuming the tests of long-range missiles. The fact that Pyongyang has conducted “a significant number of tests” in January is a cause of concern, the official stated. The U.S. government called on North Korea to cease any further nuclear missile tests, warning that these activities were destabilizing the region.
“The ballistic missile launch and the ones before it are a threat to our country, the region, and the international community… This series of launches violate UN resolutions and we strongly protest this action by North Korea,” Hirokazu Matsuno, a spokesperson for the Japanese government, said in a statement.
According to Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, Pyongyang’s frenzied missile launches ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics are part of its military modernization efforts. It is aimed at reminding Seoul and Washington that attempting to topple the Kim Jong-Un regime “would be too costly.”
In an interview with France24, Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul, said that North Korea’s missile buildup might be targeted at forcing the United States to “surrender” to Pyongyang’s demands. This is a “completely different” pattern from the past when North Korea tried to attract Washington’s attention for a favorable negotiation.
“He’s (Kim Jong-Un) addicted to advanced weapons… He sees success in the military sector as the best weapon to restore his pride and elevate his status as a leader and of the nation to the highest level,” Lim said.