SEOUL – In its first global action of 2022, North Korea this morning (January 5) launched an eastward projectile in what South Korean officials say is almost certainly a new missile test.
Seoul Joint Chiefs of Staff said the object was fired from a land platform at 8:10 a.m. this morning, although it is not yet clear whether the missile fired was a cruise missile or a ballistic missile. Under United Nations resolutions, North Korea is not allowed to own ballistic missile technology, but it regularly defies these resolutions.
The object appears to have splashed into the Sea of ââJapan, which Koreans call the East Sea. As is usual practice after such events, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff responded with a bland message to reporters. âFor more information, intelligence authorities in South Korea and the United States are conducting a detailed analysis,â the JCS said.
Strategic analysts have been more direct in their assessments. “North Korea is sending us the message that business continues as usual,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general, told Asia Times. “Kim Jong Un has been very clear that he will focus on his economy, but at the same time develop his military capabilities,” he said, referring to the North Korean leader.
Pyongyang is testing weapons for both military and political reasons. In terms of timing, the test closely follows military and political developments: annual winter military exercises and a festive plenum in December.
âThey’ve been in winter military training for the past monthâ¦ it could well be part of live-fire exercises,â Daniel Pinkston, Seoul-based international affairs expert at Troy University, told Asia Times.
âThey have introduced many new weapon systems and have held many meetings and discussions on doctrine and how these systems are to be used and how they are incorporated into war plans. In that sense, it makes sense to have a live fire exercise – it’s about safety and reliability, âsaid Pinkston.
But no matter how essential testing is for the troops, now is definitely a political one. Channeling the North Korean leadership, Chun said, âIt’s, ‘Hell with the Olympics, hell with the New Year and hell with famine – my missiles are getting better! “
Since 2018, when Kim Jong Un emerged from seven years of international isolation to engage in a series of diplomatic engagements with the leaders of China, South Korea, the United States and Russia, his State has refrained from testing the kind of weapons Washington is pressing. red button, including nuclear devices and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles.
This self-imposed moratorium had been in effect even since 2019, when then-US President Donald Trump left a high-profile summit with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Last year, North Korea tested a range of weapons that fall below Washington’s response threshold but still threaten its neighbors: cruise missiles, suspected hypersonic missiles and even train-launched missiles. The last missile test conducted by Pyongyang was a submarine-launched ballistic missile in October 2021, according to state media at the time.
Today’s launch precedes regional calendar sensitivities in the weeks and months to come. The Beijing Winter Olympics begin on February 4 and end on February 20 – a time when analysts don’t expect Pyongyang to take actions that could anger its main benefactor, Beijing.
North Korea is believed to be suffering enormous economic and nutritional hardship due to the overwhelming combination of its self-imposed isolation from Covid-19 and international sanctions led by the United States. As a result, it relies heavily on China for its essential fuel and food supplies.
Tensions could soon rise on the Korean Peninsula. A South Korean presidential election is held on March 9, and joint military exercises between South Korean and US forces are expected in March and April.
Asia Times understands that these exercises have been renamed and will be more low-key than in the past. Even so, they are sure to cringe in Pyongyang, which insists that these are preparations for an invasion.
Meanwhile, the region is engaged in an undeclared arms race. As North Korea’s missile forces give it considerable global importance, China and Taiwan are bolstering their naval capabilities amid mounting tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
South Korea and Japan are also spending heavily on a range of military assets that appear to be intended to deter North Korean systems.
Seoul is developing ballistic missiles launched by submarines, although they are conventionally armed. Japan, having decided not to launch an American Aegis missile defense program on land in 2020, would consider adopting a “first strike” capability to deter exactly the type of threat represented by North Korean missiles.
While such a high-risk system may underscore the elasticity of Japan’s pacifist constitution, the country’s right-wing was significantly strengthened after last November’s election to the Diet’s lower house.
This political shift signals a potentially more robust approach to defense and security than that usually seen in Tokyo.