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The forgotten nuclear threat of North Korea

As the West remains focused on the war in Ukraine, Kim Jong Un has begun testing his most powerful missile to date.

By Katie Stallard

Even by the bombastic standards of North Korean propaganda, the video that accompanied Pyongyang’s missile launch on 24 March was extraordinary. The opening sequence showed Kim Jong Un, apparently channelling the late 1980s and Tom Cruise in Top Gun, striding out of a hangar in slow motion, wearing a black leather bomber jacket and dark sunglasses. Kim checked his watch. His generals checked their watches. He checked his watch again. The footage cut back and forth between them as the dramatic soundtrack reached its crescendo. Kim removed his sunglasses, also in slow motion, and nodded.

While the action movie-style montage was somewhat dated, the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test that followed demonstrated significant, and seriously concerning, new capabilities. The missile, which South Korea claimed was an updated version of a previous model rather than the weapon shown in the video, reached a height of more than 6,000 kilometres, 15 times higher than the International Space Station, putting the entire US mainland within range if it was fired at a shallower angle. Kim congratulated his scientists and engineers on achieving “overwhelming military power that cannot be stopped by anyone” and vowed to continue developing North Korea’s “formidable striking capabilities” and “nuclear war deterrence”.

The last time Kim tested long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, in 2017, he brought the Korean peninsula to the brink of conflict. The then US president, Donald Trump, threatened him with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” as the North Korean leader launched three ICBMs and detonated what he claimed was the country’s first thermonuclear bomb. Trump later told the journalist Bob Woodward that war with North Korea had been “much closer than anyone would know”. According to Woodward, the US defence secretary at the time, Jim Mattis, had a flashing light and a bell installed in his home that would alert him to a North Korean launch, and slept in his clothes so that he would be ready to give the order to shoot down an incoming missile. Now Kim is clearly signalling his intention to embark on a new round of provocative weapons tests that could result in an even more serious crisis.

[See also: No, China is not a winner from the war in Ukraine]

North Korea has steadily increased the pace and scale of its missile tests in recent months, launching newly developed weapons from submarines and trains, and test-firing what the regime said was its first hypersonic missile. This would be significant if confirmed as these highly manoeuvrable weapons, which travel more than five times faster than the speed of sound, can evade conventional missile defences. US officials have also warned that Pyongyang may be preparing to carry out an underground nuclear test – its first since 2017 – after satellite imagery recorded new activity at North Korea’s main nuclear facility, which it previously claimed to have destroyed.

“Kim has told us what he wants,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of Kim Jong Un and the Bomb. “He wants better missiles, more precise missiles, and larger missiles capable of carrying multiple warheads.” Kim has also called for the development of tactical nuclear weapons, Panda told me, and the regime is likely to carry out new nuclear tests as it experiments with smaller warheads and more compact designs.

But unlike in 2017, when China and Russia worked with the US to impose tough UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea, the international outlook now is very different. As Washington DC’s relations with Beijing and Moscow deteriorate, the prospects for cooperation between the three powers in response to a new crisis are vanishingly slim. The regional security environment has also become more fraught, with Japan increasing military spending and South Korea buying American stealth fighter jets and building up its own missile arsenal. Whereas South Korea’s liberal president Moon Jae-in played a crucial role in defusing tensions five years ago by pushing for talks with North Korea, he will be replaced in May by the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol. A former prosecutor with no foreign policy experience, Yoon has indicated he will take a harder line on North Korea. He has also refused to rule out conducting pre-emptive strikes against Pyongyang.

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John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, told me he was concerned that in the coming months a dangerous cycle of escalation could return, with consequences that would extend far beyond the Korean peninsula. “The conservative government in Seoul would be inclined to react in a hawkish manner to each test,” he explained. The Biden administration, with its focus on the strategic rivalry with China and countering Vladimir Putin, would strengthen its security ties with South Korea and Japan. “Beijing and Moscow would naturally close ranks with Kim Jong Un,” Delury said. “Even if Xi Jinping might feel Kim is overdoing it, as in 2017, there would be acrimony rather than consensus at the UN Security Council.”

When Kim Jong Un first came to power following the death of his father in December 2011, there was a degree of optimism among some Western observers that he might take his isolated and impoverished country in a new direction. He was the third member of the Kim family to rule North Korea, following in the footsteps of his father and his grandfather, who had presided over the country since its founding in 1948. But the new leader was young – thought to be in his late twenties at the time, although his exact age wasn’t clear. He had also been educated at an expensive private school in Switzerland, where his classmates said he was obsessed with video games and basketball, the Chicago Bulls in particular, and so had seen what life was like beyond Pyongyang.

During an early speech in April 2012, Kim urged his officials to adopt a “creative and enterprising attitude” and stressed the importance of improving living standards and developing the “people’s economy”. He vowed to strengthen North Korea’s military, but he also promised that his citizens would “never have to tighten their belt again”, acknowledging at least some of the economic hardship they had endured in the previous decades. (Although he did not mention the terrible famine that devastated the country under his father’s rule during the 1990s, which is thought to have killed at least half a million people.) Kim announced what he called the Byungjin, or “parallel advance”, policy in 2013, which meant simultaneously pursuing nuclear weapons and economic development, even though the former brought sanctions that stifled the latter. He has long insisted that his weapons programmes are essential to securing the country’s survival, describing his nuclear arsenal as a “treasured sword” that protects North Korean citizens.

[See also: Why North Korea is testing weapons right now, with Jean Lee]

Following the long-range missile and nuclear tests that provoked the crisis of 2017, Kim abruptly declared his nuclear force complete in 2018 and announced he would shift his focus to economic development as he embarked on a diplomatic offensive that included a series of high-profile summits with Donald Trump. It was the first time a North Korean leader had held talks with a sitting US president, and the meetings were presented to Kim’s domestic audience as proof of his prowess as a global statesman and the country’s status as a nuclear power. But the talks between Kim and Trump broke down in 2019, and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic the following year caused North Korea to seal its borders to the outside world. With the country in the grip of a new economic crisis, and fears that North Korea may be on the verge of famine once again, Kim has tried to shift the blame, insisting he is defending his citizens from their “imperialist” enemies (chief among them the US) and ramping up the pace of weapons tests.

“Kim has had in effect to apologise for his failure to deliver on promises of economic improvement, even crying as he spoke to the nation in October 2020,” Delury said. “For now, the rockets are once again the only thing he can really celebrate and do his best to convince the public to feel the same.” As the Pyongyang bureau chief for the Associated Press, Jean Lee saw first-hand how the Kim regime tried to increase popular support with the celebrations that followed missile tests. “When a major launch was announced, they would do it with so much fanfare and propaganda to create a real sense of pride,” recalled Lee, who is now a senior fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington DC. “It was designed so that North Koreans would look at these weapons and marvel at the fact that, even though they have so little in relation to the rest of the world, their country was clever enough to make these weapons. I do think that pride was genuine.”

With North Korea due to mark several important anniversaries this year, Lee said it was likely that Kim would use those events to showcase more of the powerful weapons the country has developed under his rule. She pointed in particular to the 110th anniversary of his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s birth on 15 April, which is known as the Day of the Sun and celebrated as the country’s most important holiday. “Kim uses these milestone anniversaries to instil a sense of unity and to glorify his family and, by extension, himself, often with very provocative launches,” she explained. “It is an opportunity to bring the people back together and to show that he’s the right person to lead them, and I think he needs that now more than ever.”

As Kim resumes his long-range missile launches, the most notable difference so far is the comparative lack of interest they have attracted. Whereas five years ago, the growing threat from North Korea dominated international headlines and provoked urgent discussions at the UN, this time his behaviour has been overshadowed by Russia’s war in Ukraine and met with something closer to a shrug. “Washington is distracted, and the salience of North Korean nuclear developments is lower now than it was in 2017,” said Ankit Panda. “The seriousness of the threat hasn’t changed, but Washington seems somewhat resigned to tolerating these advances in North Korean capability.” That, in turn, could lead to an even more dangerous situation, as Kim is emboldened to carry out ever more ambitious tests, and all the while his formidable arsenal grows.

[See also: As the conflict in Ukraine grinds on, Putin escalates his information war at home]

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special