N. Korea’s proof of Guam missile strike capabilities threatens repeat of 2017 crisis

Posted on : 2022-10-05 16:43 KST Modified on : 2022-10-05 16:43 KST
Missile recalls “Guam siege” remarks from summer of 2017
North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported on Jan. 31 that it had conducted a test strike of its Hwasong-12 intermediate-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile the day before. North Korean media claimed the launch was successful, disclosing photographs of the Earth taken with a camera mounted on the missile. (KCNA)
North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported on Jan. 31 that it had conducted a test strike of its Hwasong-12 intermediate-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile the day before. North Korean media claimed the launch was successful, disclosing photographs of the Earth taken with a camera mounted on the missile. (KCNA)

North Korea fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) that crossed Japanese airspace and landed in the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday.

Since Sept. 25, North Korea had been staging a series of short-range ballistic missile launches. But by targeting the US and Japan with an intermediate-range ballistic missile, the country has ratcheted up the level of its military activities.

South Korea and the US responded with joint attack squadron flights and precision bombing drills.

On Tuesday, the South Korean Joint Chief of Staff (JCS) announced that at 7:23 am, a suspected IRBM was launched east from the village of Mupyong, Chagang Province, and passed through Japanese airspace.

The flight distance was 4,500 km with an altitude of 970 km and a top speed of Mach 17 (17 times the speed of sound). The missile was launched at the typical angle of 30–45 degrees, and its distance of 4,500 km was the longest trajectory yet for a ballistic missile fired by North Korea.

The missile is believed to have been a Hwasong-12, which was previously mentioned in the Guam strike plan that North Korea disclosed in summer 2017. First unveiled at a North Korean military parade on April 15, 2017, the Hwasong-12 is an IRBM that uses liquid fuel as a propellant.

After the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan’s arrival in Busan on Sept. 23, North Korea fired four short-range missiles between Sept. 25 and Oct. 1. These launches have been seen as retaliation for the deployment of US strategic assets across the Korean Peninsula, along with South Korea-US naval drills and trilateral submarine warfare drills with the US and Japan carried out in the East Sea last month.

The latest IRBM hits differently from previous missile threats in that it can reach not only Japan but also Guam.

The distance from Pyongyang to Guam is about 3,400 km, which means that an intermediate-range missile with a flight distance of 4,500 km can target the island. Guam is home to a US strategic bomber base that can dispatch soldiers to the Korean Peninsula in case of an emergency.

The Hwasong-12 model that North Korea fired at a high angle in January of this year was calculated as having a flight distance of 800 km — the actual flight distance being 4,000 km — with a peak altitude of 2,000 km. By firing a missile at a typical angle this time, North Korea has shown that it can directly strike US forces in the Pacific.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are expected to rise following North Korea's IRBM launch.

It remains possible that North Korea will continue engaging in strategic provocations, such as test-launching intercontinental ballistic missiles or carrying out a seventh nuclear test.

In a National Assembly National Defense Committee parliamentary audit held Tuesday at the presidential office in Seoul’s Yongsan area, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) reported that North Korea “is continuing its nuclear testing and preparing to test-fire a new liquid-powered intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).”

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said this represented “one step closer toward nuclear testing.”

“After intermediate-range tests, there’ll be long-range tests and then nuclear tests,” he predicted.

Some are expressing concerns that conflict could intensify between North Korea and the US in a similar way to the North Korean nuclear crisis in the summer of 2017.

On Aug. 9, 2017, North Korea declared to the US that it had conceived an operation to surround Guam with Hwasong-12-type missiles, explaining that it intended to launch several of those missiles toward the island simultaneously at some point.

For its part, the US considered a “bloody nose” preemptive strike against the Yongbyon nuclear facility and the Dongchang-ri missile base.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol strongly criticized North Korea’s IRBM launch.

“This reckless nuclear provocation will face a decisive response from our military, our allies, and the international community," he told reporters on his way to work.

The presidential office also held a National Security Council (NSC) meeting presided over by National Security Office Director Kim Sung-han. During the meeting, the office announced that “North Korea's intermediate-range missile launch is a serious provocation that threatens international peace, including on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.” It also announced plans to “develop various measures to keep North Korea in check, including stronger sanctions against the North.”

Since then, South Korea and the US have conducted flight and precision bombing drills in response to North Korean missile launches.

The JCS explained, "We have conducted South Korea-US joint attack squadron flights and precision bombing drills in response to North Korea's provocations."

"With four South Korean Air Force F-15Ks and four F-16 fighter jets participating, the F-15Ks conducted precision bombing drills involving the launch of two air-to-surface joint direct-fire rounds toward virtual targets at the Chik-do Range in the West Sea,” it added.

The Japanese government also reacted strongly. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said, "It appears that a North Korean intermediate-range missile has passed through the Japanese archipelago and landed in the Pacific Ocean."

He went on to call the North's actions “violent” and express “strong condemnation.”

Amid all this, attention is focusing on how the divided international community will respond.

The UN Security Council has the option of imposing additional sanctions or issuing a statement against North Korea but is unlikely to do so due to Russia’s war in Ukraine and the ongoing US-China conflict.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

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

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