TCSS Security Commentaries #030

After the stalled Trump-Kim summit diplomacy in 2018, the Korean Peninsula is back on the security agenda as North Korea has tested an unprecedented number of missiles in 2022.

Luana Margarete Geiger, Taiwan Fellowship Scholar

North Korea has been causing alarm in the Pacific region as it ramped up missile testing. While an intermediate-range ballistic missile flew over Japan, a short-range ballistic missile landed near South Korean territorial waters for the first time since the peninsula’s division into two Koreas. According to Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada, one of the two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) tested can reach the US mainland. In 2022, tensions steadily mounted as the North Korean regime launched a variety of ballistic, cruise, and hypersonic missiles throughout the year. The country’s last nuclear test was in 2017 when Pyongyang tested its first thermonuclear device.

North Korea used its strategic position in Northeast Asia for decades to manipulate regional powers. Analysis of past missile tests indicates that Pyongyang escalates tensions through missile tests on symbolic dates and events. The sharp rise in launches since September was no different. On November 2, North Korea fired 25 missiles at the East and West of the peninsula. In 2022, November 18 marks the 34th day of conducting a missile test.

North Korea’s ICBM missile launch on November 18, 2022
(Source:  CNN)

In search of influencing US politics to its favor during its midterm elections, Pyongyang has calculated a new round of tensions, which is not a new move. The last time Kim Jong Un could advance his agenda was during the President Trump administration, who has just announced his White House bid for 2024. North Korea seeks to influence US politics in its favor, as it did during the 2016-2017 period of tensions and might wait for the situation to change in its favor, for example, Trump’s re-election.

With the Biden administration focused on Ukraine and prioritizing strategic competition with China, North Korea wants attention as it slips down the global agenda. Experts assess that the main aim of recent provocations was to attract global attention to the apogee of the cycle of tensions, which might be its seventh nuclear test.

The new round of tests comes after the unconventional Trump-Kim Summit failed to achieve practical advances for the Korean question in 2019. Since then, leadership transitions in the United States, South Korea, and Japan, alongside the covid-19 pandemic, have created an environment less prone to negotiating with Pyongyang.

North Korean State media has reported that recent launches and drills are in response to military exercises being run for the past two months by the US, South Korea, and Japan – especially Operation Vigilant Storm. Trilateral exercises were held for the first time in five years. In its last five-year plan in 2021, North Korea laid out a framework for new weapons development, including smaller battlefield nuclear bombs and the short-range missiles to carry them. Kim Jong Un now decided to demonstrate the progress made and leverage it to negotiate relief against the international sanctions. Even though the sanctions regime hasn’t stopped North Korea from developing weapons, it poses limits to its economic recovery.  

The US and South Korean observers have warned for months that North Korea appears to be preparing for an underwater nuclear test, with satellite imagery showing activity at the nuclear test site. Earlier, analysts speculated that Pyongyang may conduct next nuclear test between two major political events – the Communist Party of China’s national Congress and US midterm elections. However, Pyongyang might be waiting for a bigger political moment to seek international attention. A new nuclear test would be the first in nearly five years.

Frozen in a conflict born from the Cold War, the Korean peninsula has experienced intermittent periods of tension and relative stability. The North Korean regime has accelerated its nuclear and missile provocation policy to seek attention from major powers and maintain its place on the top of the international security agenda while exploiting major-power rivalries. The new round of tensions reminds the importance of regional powers in structuring a stronger comprehensive North Korean strategy.

Luana Margarete Geiger  holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). She is a Research Fellow at the South-American Institute for Policy and Strategy and a Taiwan Fellowship 2022 Scholar..