5 years after declaring nuclear forces complete, NK shifts focus from targeting US to perfecting arms

Posted on : 2022-11-28 16:32 KST Modified on : 2022-11-28 16:32 KST
In the past five years, North Korea has altered its national strategy twice
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sits for a photo with “contributors to successful test-fire of new-type ICBM Hwasongpho-17” on Nov. 18. (Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sits for a photo with “contributors to successful test-fire of new-type ICBM Hwasongpho-17” on Nov. 18. (Yonhap)

“[They] flawlessly completed the most powerful Juche-oriented strategic weapon [. . .] and thus more strikingly displayed the great might of the powerful and dignified nuclear power.”

These were the words spoken by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Saturday as he promoted 106 officials who had contributed to the development of the new Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and its successful test launch on Nov. 18.

His use of the phrases “flawlessly completed” and “more strikingly” are especially notable. To understand why, we need to compare them with the North’s declaration five years earlier about the completion of its national nuclear armament.

Early in the morning on Nov. 29, 2017, North Korea successfully test-launched the Hwasong-15 ICBM. Shortly afterward, Kim declared that it had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power.”

In a statement by the “government of the Republic” at the time, it described this as the “most powerful intercontinental ballistic rocket achieving the targeted stage of completion of rocket weapon system development.”

Five years after North Korea’s nuclear weapon system was declared to be at its “stage of completion,” Kim’s latest remarks spoke of it as being “flawlessly completed.” This suggests that the current situation is more dire than it was five years ago, when the Korean Peninsula was facing the threat of war.

In the past five years, North Korea has altered its national strategy twice.

Politically, it has declared itself a nuclear power possessing both nuclear warheads and the means to fire them, thanks to its six nuclear tests and successful test launch of the Hwasong-15. Under these circumstances, it moved to undo the “locks” on inter-Korean relations with a New Year’s address by Kim on Jan. 1, 2018, and it also began negotiating in earnest with Washington.

In a third plenary session of the 7th Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee a week ahead of an inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom scheduled for April 27 of that year, North Korea said declared a “victory” in its dual course of pursuing nuclear and economic development and announced a new “strategic line.”

The announcement was that based on its confidence in the completion of its nuclear armament, Pyongyang planned to “concentrate all efforts” on “socialist economic construction.”

At the time, some compared this to the third plenary session of the 11th Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, which made the decision to implement reforms and openness in China.

But politically, things did not go in the direction North Korea wanted.

China’s reforms and openness were introduced soon after the decision to establish diplomatic ties with the US. North Korea and the US held two summits — one in Singapore in June 2018 and another in Hanoi in February 2019 — but were unable to surmount the barriers of distrust.

Pyongyang ended up returning to the dual track of nuclear and economic development where it had previously declared a “great victory.” This was symbolically illustrated by the five focused goals for national defense development announced at the 8th WPK Congress on Jan. 5, 2021, which included the development of a nuclear submarine.

Indeed, in a policy speech delivered before the Supreme People’s Assembly on Sept. 8, Kim stressed that it was “a crucial and vital requirement in achieving a steady development and prosperity of socialism that conditions and an environment that allow no aggressive threat be created.”

“[T]o this end, we should possess an absolute strength with which we can definitely overwhelm the enemy,” he added.

This signaled that in contrast with the situation five years earlier, when Pyongyang pursued denuclearization to focus on building its economy, it has now changed course to insist on the need for nuclear armament, if only to ensure stable economic development.

Under this new strategy, the reinforcement of the North’s nuclear capabilities has been taking place in four areas: ICBMs, short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Where the objective five years ago was to establish capabilities to simply launch a retaliatory strike against the US, the focus now is on “perfecting” its nuclear capabilities.

The situation on May 25, when the North test-launched a mixture of one ICBM — believed to be a Hwasong-17 — and two short-range missiles shows that it is simultaneously working to build up its strategic and tactical nuclear weapon capabilities. It is in this context that some observers are predicting the possibility of a seventh nuclear test following on the heels of the Hwasong-17 test launch on Nov. 18.

As North Korea improved its nuclear capabilities, the geopolitical framework in Northeast Asia has been rapidly shifting.

Citing the “threat” posed by the North, the US has been focusing on policies aimed at hemming in China based on stronger trilateral security cooperation with South Korea and Japan.

This was illustrated by the “Phnom Penh Statement on US – Japan – Republic of Korea Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific” announced by the respective heads of state on Nov. 13, which clearly states the aims of reining in not only North Korea but also China and Russia.

“The situation taking shape in Northeast Asia is based on the US’ strategic decisions aimed at blocking the rise of China as a ‘force that will alter the status quo,’ and it’s inevitable that the Korean Peninsula situation will be affected by that,” said Moon Jang-ryul, formerly a professor at Korea National Defense University.

“It’s a sore point that we were overwhelmed by that framework five years ago and ended up unable to exercise policy autonomy,” he added.

By Jung In-hwan, staff reporter

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

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