What to make of Kim Jong-un's missile launch spree

The spate of missile launches by North Korea over the past month has shown Kim Jong-un’s unrelenting strategic thinking to hold nuclear weapons and keep growing nuclear power at all costs. With spillover effects on the US, South Korea and Japan, the security situation in the Korean peninsula is spiralling downward amid mutual aggravation. How will the region respond to the increasing nuclear threat?
A man walks past a television report showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, on 6 October 2022. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)
A man walks past a television report showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, on 6 October 2022. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)

North Korea has unleashed a barrage of missile launches recently, claiming that these were a “simulation” of a nuclear attack on the South and that the missiles were designed to carry tactical nuclear weapons. 

It fired several short-range missiles on 25, 28 and 29 September, and also on 1, 6 and 9 October. Furthermore, it fired an intermediate-range missile into its eastern waters on 4 October, which travelled approximately 4,500 kilometres at a maximum altitude of roughly 970 kilometres. 

As expected, the US, South Korea and Japan unanimously condemned North Korea’s actions, asserting that North Korea’s ongoing missile activities are provocative, pose a threat to the peace and security of the Korean peninsula and the entire international community, and are a clear violation of Security Council resolutions.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has in fact launched missiles 25 times this year...

Spate of launches

North Korea’s seven rounds of ballistic missiles over 15 days were largely triggered by the joint military exercise between the US, Japan and South Korea. On 23 September, the US Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan arrived at a naval base in Busan, following which it conducted two rounds of joint military drills with South Korea and Japan from 26 September in simulation exercises against North Korean provocations. 

US Vice-President Kamala Harris’s tough remarks on North Korea on 29 September after her tour of the Korean Demilitarised Zone also triggered North Korea’s missile launch. The latter used the same tactic to protest against the US’s request for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to hold an emergency meeting on North Korea’s intermediate-range missile test on 5 October.  

People sit near a television showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, on 6 October 2022. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)
People sit near a television showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, on 6 October 2022. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)

Yonhap News Agency analysed that North Korea’s launch of an intermediate-range missile on 4 October was designed to show off its ability to hit Guam, but I beg to differ. The US’s heavily fortified island of Guam is a strategic hub of US military operations in the second island chain, roughly 3,500 kilometres away from North Korea. In September 2017, North Korea already launched the intermediate-range ballistic missile (Hwasong-12) that flew to a range of roughly 3,700 kilometres, and there is no need to prove its abilities again after five years.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has in fact launched missiles 25 times this year, including seven in January, the month after the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea ended on 31 December 2021. Out of these, only the first test launch of a hypersonic missile on 11 January and the test launch of a presumed intercontinental ballistic missile on 25 May were militarily significant. 

Strengthened trilateral alliance

Nonetheless, the biggest spillover effect of North Korea’s frequent missile tests is the strengthening of the US-Japan-South Korea military-political alliance. Following calls between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan on 3 and 4 October, the three parties agreed to maintain close communication and coordination at the UNSC level to deal with North Korea’s behaviour. 

On 4 October, four South Korean and four US military fighters carried out precision bombing drills in the Yellow Sea, while four US and eight Japanese fighters conducted joint drills over the Sea of Japan, west of Kyushu. The next day, South Korea and the US each fired two surface-to-surface missiles into the sea off the east coast of the Korean peninsula, while the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group returned to waters off the Korean peninsula’s east coast after the completion of its anti-submarine exercises.

Nonetheless, Japan’s reaction to North Korea’s missile test was intentionally exaggerated and dramatic.

This handout photo taken on 4 October 2022 and provided by the South Korean Defence Ministry in Seoul shows four South Korean Air Force F-15Ks and four US Air Force F-16 fighters flying over South Korea, during a precision bombing drill in response to North Korea firing an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan. (Handout/South Korean Defence Ministry/AFP)
This handout photo taken on 4 October 2022 and provided by the South Korean Defence Ministry in Seoul shows four South Korean Air Force F-15Ks and four US Air Force F-16 fighters flying over South Korea, during a precision bombing drill in response to North Korea firing an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan. (Handout/South Korean Defence Ministry/AFP)

Japan also has plans to raise its defence spending gradually to the NATO standard of 2% of GDP. In September 2017 when North Korea’s intermediate-range missile flew over Hokkaido, Japan activated its early warning system (J-alert) and shut down the Shinkansen. This time, Japan again issued the J-alert to residents in Hokkaido, Aomori and Tokyo after North Korea flew a missile over Aomori Prefecture, and suspended train operations in some regions. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida strongly condemned North Korea’s actions, calling them “barbaric” and “unforgivable”.        

Nonetheless, Japan’s reaction to North Korea’s missile test was intentionally exaggerated and dramatic. In general, more than 100 kilometres above mean sea level is classified as space, not airspace. Reconnaissance satellites of various countries fly over the airspaces of other countries in space every day, spying on each other’s activities. As the North Korean missile flew well above 100 kilometres over Japan, the threat is more psychological than it is real.     

Additionally, the security situation in the Korean peninsula is spiralling downward amid mutual aggravation. Not only are South Korean President Yoon Seok-youl’s policies becoming more hawkish, but the South Korean defence ministry has also been highlighting the superior and overwhelming advantage the South Korean military has over North Korean provocations, including nuclear threats. 

Kim added that the US, Japan and South Korea have fanned the flames of the situation to provide justification for measures to strengthen self-defence capabilities...

Kim’s response is of course uncompromising. Last month, after the Seventh Session of the 14th Supreme People's Assembly passed a law on North Korea’s nuclear policy, Kim criticised South Korea’s three-pronged military strategy for worsening regional military tensions, while reiterating that the top reformative task for the government was to strengthen military-first politics and establishing a foremost framework with defence at the top. 

He added that the US, Japan and South Korea have fanned the flames of the situation to provide justification for measures to strengthen self-defence capabilities, and indisputable evidence for boosting defence.

kim jong un
This picture taken on 12 October  2022 and released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on 13 October 2022 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (centre) reacting after a test-fire of long-range strategic cruise missiles conducted by the Korean People's Army Tactical Nuclear Operation Unit at an undisclosed location. (KCNA via KNS/AFP)

Kim’s strategic thinking is to hold nuclear weapons and keep growing nuclear power at all costs, in order to increase North Korea’s bargaining chips in nuclear talks, then engage in brinkmanship and blackmail to force the US and China to accept the reality of its nuclear ownership, after which the UNSC and the international community would also accept and legitimise it. He would get more security safeguards and economic assistance, and accomplish what his father and grandfather did not. 

Even if North Korea had ten times as many nuclear warheads and fired ten times as many missiles, it would not have much wherewithal to negotiate with China and the US.

Kim’s ‘grand design’

Unfortunately, there are major issues on two fronts. Objectively, due to the large disparity in national strength, Kim cannot manipulate China or the US, much less stir up or torment them. Even with a first-mover advantage, China and the US can easily handle Kim. 

Indeed, strategic confrontation is a test of the strength of a country and its elites. Kim’s personal ability is outstanding, but it cannot change the strategic plight that he and North Korea are currently in.

Subjectively, Kim is overestimating his own ability and North Korea’s strength while underestimating the intelligence and patience of China and the US, and one-sidedly asking too much. 

Even if North Korea had ten times as many nuclear warheads and fired ten times as many missiles, it would not have much wherewithal to negotiate with China and the US. Even if Donald Trump becomes US president again in 2024 and thirsts for the Nobel Peace Prize, he would be fettered by US Congress, public opinion and the elites, which would make it difficult for him to quickly make any major concessions.

Kim’s “grand design” also coincided with a once-in-a-century strategic opportunity — Trump and Moon Jae-in, the friendliest presidents of the US and South Korea since North Korea’s inception, as well as unresolvable structural differences and conflicts between China and the US.

trump kim moon
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left), former US President Donald Trump (centre) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, undated. (Internet)

Political amateur Trump was vain, arrogant and shallow — the exact opposite of his predecessor Barack Obama. He was covetous of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, and cancelled the Iran nuclear deal, while trying to achieve a milestone breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear issue where Obama struck out. And so, he did not take his advisors’ suggestions and embarked on three US-North Korea summits. He started too high and too fast and ended up going through the motions, merely whetting Kim’s appetite.

Meanwhile, born to North Korean refugees, Moon is profoundly idealistic and as rare as Trump among global leaders. He put the interest of the Korean race above those of the country; he was willing to be a human stepladder, unconcerned with personal glory or gain. But the extremely self-absorbed Kim burned bridges before crossing the river; he thought he could brush off South Korea and directly engage in peace talks with the US and quickly reach a beneficial agreement.

Kim is gradually losing patience and unable to restrain himself, testing the US’s and South Korea’s limits.

On 13 June 2019, North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that South Korea had no place to comment or get involved in North Korean affairs, especially the nuclear issue. And on 4, 13 and 17 June 2020, Kim’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong made three speeches, which were clearly backed by her brother; she was brash and arrogant, lashing out at North Korean defectors, including Moon, describing him as a “pathetic, panting lapdog”. 

Kim’s increasingly frequent missile firings clearly show that strict sanctions, Covid-19 and natural disasters such as heat waves and flooding are piling on the pressure, and Kim is gradually losing patience and unable to restrain himself, testing the US’s and South Korea’s limits. Conversely, China, the US and UNSC, which have common interests in nuclear non-proliferation, should maintain calm and not be hasty. They should stay constant amid changes, and just watch Kim entertain himself.

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