North Korea has been conducting missile tests for many years, which have drawn significant international attention and concern. The country’s missile program has been a major point of contention between North Korea and other nations, particularly the United States and its allies. North Korea has conducted a variety of missile tests, including tests of short-range, medium-range, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In recent years, North Korea has made significant progress in developing ICBMs that could potentially reach the continental United States. These missile tests have drawn international condemnation and led to various sanctions and diplomatic efforts aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. However, North Korea has continued to conduct tests, indicating that it is unwilling to give up its nuclear ambitions.
North Korea has conducted a variety of missile tests, including tests of short-range, medium-range, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In recent years, North Korea has made significant progress in developing ICBMs that could potentially reach the continental United States.
The situation on the Korean peninsula remains tense, and there is ongoing concern about the potential for military conflict. International efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the issue continue, but progress has been slow. North Korea has been determined to develop its nuclear program and missile capabilities. Recently, the country has increased its aggressive behavior with more frequent tests and inflammatory language, often launching projectiles into the ocean and warning its enemies that future missiles could be aimed at them.
The greatest threat posed by North Korea is its nuclear arsenal. The country’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, has threatened to use it “anytime and anywhere.” A cautious estimate by researchers at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, North Korea has already assembled 20 to 30 nuclear warheads and has enough fissile material to build 45 to 55 nuclear weapons. Other estimates suggest that North Korea may already have more than 100 nuclear weapons. This year, Kim has repeatedly called for the country to increase its nuclear weapon production exponentially.
North Korea has been using its missile tests to showcase its diverse range of warhead carriers. These include low-altitude cruise missiles that can be guided to attack nearby targets, as well as ballistic missiles that are launched high into the atmosphere and can travel thousands of miles at hypersonic speeds. North Korea has also tested unmanned underwater attack drones that it claims can carry a nuclear warhead and trigger a “radioactive tsunami.” These tests are used by Pyongyang to perfect the technical aspects of its projectiles. Although North Korea often claims that its missile launches are in response to perceived aggression by the US or South Korea, these tests usually only result in more military drills by these allies. In turn, North Korea responds with even more tests in an ongoing cycle of tit-for-tat displays of strength.
Diplomatic efforts seem to be out of reach as North Korea remains steadfast in its pursuit of nuclear ambitions. North Korea updated its nuclear doctrine and declared that there would be no denuclearization, negotiation or bargaining even if international sanctions were lifted.
On New Year’s Day, Pyongyang kicked off 2023 with the launch of a short-range ballistic missile into the East Sea. In February, North Korea displayed a grand exhibition of military equipment, revealing 15 missiles, including their latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the “monster missile” Hwasong-17. Analysts noted the presence of solid-fuel ICBM canisters, enabling North Korea to launch the missiles more quickly than with traditional liquid-fueled ones that require refueling. In mid-February, North Korea launched its first ICBM of the year, the Hwasong-15, from Pyongyang International Airport. Launched at an upward angle, it reached an altitude exceeding 3,500 miles and flew for approximately 66 minutes. During testing, North Korea launches its ICBMs at high angles to prevent hitting other countries. However, in an actual attack, the missiles would be launched at lower angles to optimize their trajectory and reach their targets. It is still uncertain if these missiles can withstand the high-stress and high-temperature conditions of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere during real combat. SRBMs were fired from North Korea’s western front and landed in the East Sea. In response, South Korea sanctioned four individuals and five entities associated with North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. North Korea also reported firing four Hwasal-2 cruise missiles from Kimchaek in Hamgyong Province, located in the east. This occurred just one day before joint exercises between the U.S. and South Korea began in the Korean peninsula. According to Pyongyang’s central news agency, the missiles flew 1,240 miles in figure-eight trajectories over the East Sea.
In March, North Korea increased its missile testing. Kim and his daughter watched as six short-range missiles were fired toward the sea off North Korea’s west coast during wargames. State media reported that Kim was “greatly satisfied” with the drills and the troops’ ability to “confidently” demonstrate their readiness for “actual war.” In March South Korea and the U.S. were set to conduct large-scale military drills. In apparent protest, North Korea fired two cruise missiles from a submarine in the East Sea on the eve of the exercises, showcasing its amphibious launch capabilities.
North Korea continued its protests by firing two more SRBMs from its west coast. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command stated that the launches highlighted the “destabilizing impact” of North Korea’s missile programs.
North Korea continued its protests by firing two more SRBMs from its west coast. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command stated that while the launches did not pose an immediate threat to its allies, they highlighted the “destabilizing impact” of North Korea’s missile programs. The second ICBM launched this year was the domestically produced Hwasong-17. North Korea claimed that the launch was intended to “strike fear into its enemies” by demonstrating Pyongyang’s ability to respond quickly to threats. Another SRBM was fired from Cholsan County in North P’yŏngan Province, which is home to North Korea’s key long-range rocket launch site. North Korean state news agencies reported that the country conducted a drill simulating a nuclear strike on a major enemy target using a missile equipped with a test warhead that simulated a nuclear warhead. South Korean defense officials reported that North Korea had launched at least four cruise missiles from its eastern Hamhung province. According to North Korean state media, these missiles were equipped with simulated nuclear warheads similar to those used in previous launches and also tested minimum-altitude flight and evasive maneuvers. South Korea and Japan detected two additional SRBMs launched from North Korea’s east coast. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command reiterated the destabilizing impact of the tests but stated that there was no immediate threat. Japan’s Ministry of Defense and South Korea’s military detected the launch of at least one ballistic missile, prompting Japan to issue a warning over the island prefecture of Hokkaido and advise residents to evacuate or take shelter. Pyongyang claimed that it was testing a new type of solid-fuel ICBM, the Hwasong-18. The launch occurred after North Korea’s Kim expressed dissatisfaction with the U.S. flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over the Korean Peninsula.
Despite advances in surveillance technology, intelligence gathering on North Korea’s secretive missile program remains limited. Much of the assessment is based on extrapolation from existing combat systems. North Korea has become adept at broadcasting television footage of drills and launches that are not verified by independent third parties. As a result, there is very little understanding of what is happening within the country. However, if Pyongyang escalates its provocations, it risks revealing more about its weapon system. While they may want to demonstrate the credibility of their system, it could backfire. Any display of firepower could expose weaknesses and potential failures. Diplomatic efforts seem to be out of reach as North Korea remains steadfast in its pursuit of nuclear ambitions. North Korea updated its nuclear doctrine and declared that there would be no denuclearization, negotiation or bargaining even if international sanctions were lifted.
Asma Khan Durrani is an Islamabad-based expert in Strategic Affairs. She is a student of Defence and Strategic Studies. She has done M.Phil. from SPIR Quaid-I-Azam University Islamabad. She has also been published internationally. She tweets @AsmaKhan_47 Mailed @ firstname.lastname@example.org