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6 October 2022

What is the meaning of North Korea’s nuclear opportunism?

With the West distracted by the war in Ukraine, Kim Jong Un may have decided now is the time to press ahead with his weapons programme.

By Katie Stallard

This piece has been updated in light of recent developments. On 6 October, North Korea fired another two ballistic missiles into the waters off the Korean Peninsula, its sixth such weapons test in less than two weeks.

For the first time in five years North Korea has fired a ballistic missile over Japan. At around 7:30am today (4 October) sirens sounded across several Japanese prefectures and emergency alerts on mobile phones and local radio stations urged residents to take shelter. “North Korea appears to have launched a missile,” the message said. “Please evacuate into buildings or underground.”

The test was Pyongyang’s longest in range to date, the missile travelling an estimated 4,600km and reaching an altitude of 1,000km above Japan before plunging into the Pacific Ocean. If fired on a shallower trajectory, this would put the US island of Guam within range. Kishida Fumio, the Japanese prime minister, condemned the launch as “outrageous”. South Korea and the US held military drills in response, with South Korean fighter jets firing air-to-surface missiles at targets off the west coast of the Korean peninsula.

The missile launch was North Korea’s fifth in the last ten days and follows warnings that the country could also be preparing to conduct a nuclear test. According to South Korean officials, Kim Jong Un‘s regime has already completed preparations for the test, which they believe could take place between 16 October and 7 November. It would be the first time that the North has detonated a nuclear weapon since 2017, when Pyongyang’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests brought the Korean peninsula to the brink of conflict. At the height of the crisis Donald Trump, then the US president, threatened to destroy North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. In response Kim vowed to “tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire”.

Instead, they agreed to hold a historic summit in Singapore in June 2018, the first time a sitting US president and a North Korean leader had ever met. Kim volunteered to halt nuclear and long-range missile tests. Trump enthused about their “excellent relationship” and said that he trusted Kim. Their next meeting in Hanoi in February 2019, however, ended in acrimony when Kim demanded sanctions relief in return for shutting down some of his nuclear facilities and Trump walked out of the summit.

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The two men met again in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in June 2019, where they posed for photographs together and Trump briefly stepped across the dividing line into North Korea, but they made no substantive progress in the meeting that followed. By the end of Trump’s presidency Kim had announced that his self-imposed moratorium on testing was over, and vowed to “actively push forward” with developing new strategic weapons and “shift to a shocking actual action”.

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North Korea sealed its borders at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in January 2020, severing trade links and cutting the already isolated nation off from the outside world. The following year international aid organisations warned that the country, whose citizens have long suffered chronic food shortages, was once again on the brink of famine. When the virus finally reached the country the regime acknowledged a large-scale outbreak in May 2022, with more than 2.6 million people said to be showing symptoms, or more than 10 per cent of the population.

Yet despite all this, and the relentless hardship his citizens have suffered, Kim has continually channelled the country’s scarce resources into weapons programmes, insisting that they are the only way to keep the country safe from its foreign enemies such as the “imperialist aggressor”, as the regime calls the US. Kim has steadily accelerated the pace of missile and nuclear tests since he took power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011. As he enters the second decade of his rule he shows no sign of slowing down. In the first six months of 2022 he launched 31 missiles, including what appears to be a new model of ICBM.

“We cannot let this become the new norm,” Linda Greenfield-Thomas, the US ambassador to the United Nations, told a meeting of the UN Security Council after the latest ICBM test in May. “Now is the time to act.” That is not what the assembled members did. China and Russia vetoed a resolution that would have strengthened sanctions against North Korea and the council members were left to issue strongly worded statements instead.

Officials in Joe Biden’s administration have made it clear that they are prepared to talk to North Korea “any time, any where”. Pyongyang has yet to respond. With the West distracted by the war in Ukraine and the permanent members of the Security Council fiercely divided – with China and Russia unlikely to agree to vote with the US for more sanctions as they did in 2017 – Kim perhaps feels he has a window of opportunity to press ahead with his weapons programme. He has already indicated he wants to develop his nuclear arsenal with new capabilities such as smaller tactical nuclear weapons and more sophisticated means of delivery. The intensifying focus on nuclear threats from Russia, along with the US vice president Kamala Harris’ visit to the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea last week, may have strengthened Kim’s conviction that now is the time to act.

The North Korean leader’s experience to date has taught him that this process is cyclical. As long as he can manage any ensuing crisis to prevent it from escalating into conflict, he can always return to diplomacy and pursue a deal with whoever comes to power after the next US presidential election in 2024. This time from a position of even greater strength.

[See also: How should the US respond to a Russian nuclear attack?]