[News analysis] N. Korea’s 7th nuclear test likely imminent, S. Korean experts predict

Posted on : 2022-05-09 16:38 KST Modified on : 2022-05-09 16:38 KST
With a new administration taking office in the South, the North’s continued missile tests seem intended to increase the pressure on the US and South Korea
A military parade on April 25 marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the KRPA featured the Hwasong-17, a new North Korean ICBM. (KCNA/Yonhap News)
A military parade on April 25 marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the KRPA featured the Hwasong-17, a new North Korean ICBM. (KCNA/Yonhap News)

With the inauguration of Yoon Suk-yeol (May 10) and the South Korea-US summit (May 21) fast approaching, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is heading toward confrontation reminiscent of that in 2017, when war seemed to be brewing in the region. Government and other officials in South Korea who have been dealing with the North remarked on Sunday that Pyongyang’s seventh nuclear test may be imminent. As controlling forces that would prevent conditions on the Korean Peninsula from worsening seem all but impossible to find, some project that a hard-line confrontation between South and North Korea may be inevitable.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff announced that it “detected a short-range ballistic missile estimated to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) fired by North Korea from waters near Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province, towards the East Sea around 2:07 pm on Saturday.” The missile flew about 600 kilometers and reached a top altitude of 60 kilometers, the Joint Chiefs said.

The last time Pyongyang launched an SLBM was seven months ago, on Oct. 19 of last year from waters near Sinpo. South Korean military authorities reportedly believe that the missile that was launched on Saturday is a model similar to the SLBM launched last October, which flew about 590 kilometers and reached a top altitude of 59 kilometers.

It was only four days ago that North Korea test-launched another one of its strategic weapons: on Wednesday, Pyongyang fired a “ballistic missile” presumed to be the Hwasong-15 that flew about 470 kilometers and reached a top altitude of 780 kilometers.

Both the party-run Rodong Sinmun and the state-run Korea Central News Agency have yet to report on North Korea’s recent missile launches on Wednesday and Saturday.

The South Korean government has publicly confirmed 13 ballistic missile launches by North Korea this year. The count would go up to 15 if Pyongyang’s cruise missile launch on January 25 and multiple rocket launcher test on March 20 were to be included in the tally.

Multiple factors seem to have influenced North Korea’s steady stream of shows of force that have coincided with the Blue House changing hands in South Korea — namely, the indifference the US administration of Joe Biden has shown towards Pyongyang; South Korea President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s tough stance on North Korea that has denigrated the Korean Peninsula peace process; and military-technological demand for more advanced nuclear capabilities within North Korea.

Military-tech demand: The right time for a nuclear test?

Pyongyang has taken advantage of the gap in sanctions against it that opened up due to the intensifying conflict between the US and Russia prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, heightening the crisis on the Korean Peninsula by test-firing various nuclear weapons delivery systems.

During his speech celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army on April 25, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stated that North Korean “nuclear forces [. . .] should be strengthened in terms of both quality and scale, so that they can perform nuclear combat capabilities in any situations of warfare, according to purposes and missions of different operations and by various means.”

North Korea needs to experiment and conduct test launches in order to realize Kim’s guideline, which calls for the “multiplication” of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and their delivery method. But the UN Security Council currently has its hands tied from introducing additional sanctions against North Korea due to opposition from Russia. In a sense, Kim has been presented with a golden opportunity to accomplish his objective to “continue to take measures for further developing the nuclear forces of our state at the fastest possible speed.”

As a matter of fact, Kim has been testing various nuclear weapons delivery systems this year, from test-firing the Hwasong-12, a ground-to-ground intermediate-range ballistic missile, on Jan. 30; to conducting “important tests” for its “military reconnaissance satellite” on Feb. 27 and March 5; test-launching the Hwasong-17, “a newly developed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM),” on March 24; and launching a short-range ballistic missile estimated to be an SLBM on Saturday.

This is why more and more observers are saying that North Korea will conduct its seventh nuclear test in the near future. Park Jie-won, who serves as the chief of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, stated to the media on Saturday that “it’s likely that the North will conduct its [seventh] nuclear test at Tunnel No. 3 at the Punggye Village [nuclear testing site].”

Shows of force to US and South Korea

Timing-wise, Pyongyang’s continued missile tests seem intended to increase the pressure on the US and South Korea. During the 6th Political Bureau meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) held Jan. 19, Kim stated that “the hostile policies and military threats of the US have reached a danger line that can’t be ignored” and commanded that “the reactivation of all temporarily-suspended activities be considered.”

This statement warned that Pyongyang could break its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing, which was promised during the North Korea-US summit on June 12, 2018. But Biden has continued to maintain his indifference towards North Korea, not even mentioning the country once during his State of the Union speech on March 1.

In regard to Yoon, who mentioned the possibility of a preemptive strike against North Korea during his presidential campaign, Pyongyang didn’t hesitate to make a nuclear threat, with Deputy Department Director of the WPK Central Committee Kim Yo-jong stating in a press statement on April 5 that “in case south Korea opts for military confrontation with us, our nuclear combat force will have to inevitably carry out its duty.”

Reassuring an anxious population

Multiple former high-ranking government officials commented that North Korea’s continued ballistic missile launches seem intended in part to increase the pressure on South Korea and the US with the inauguration of the Yoon administration and Biden’s visit to South Korea fast approaching.

One official pointed out that “considering the economic downturn [in North Korea] due to COVID-19 and long-term border closures, it should be acknowledged that the internal political circumstance [in Pyongyang] whereby the only way the Kim Jong-un system can show off its legitimacy and national strength is through military power with nuclear weapons in the fore played a part.”

The problem is that experts are struggling to find a controlling force that would reroute the Korean Peninsula’s trajectory toward precipitous confrontation in favor of dialogue and negotiation.

A veteran in foreign policy and security stated, “To prevent North Korea’s seventh nuclear test, the US should be proposing specific corresponding measures to [Pyongyang’s] denuclearization such as the lifting of sanctions and resume dialogue with North Korea at an early stage, but this his highly unlikely based on the Biden administration’s attitude.”

They added, “[The situation] is more concerning because it doesn’t seem like the Yoon administration, which will take office on Tuesday, would persuade the Biden administration to open up negotiations.”

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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