N. Korea’s launch of solid-fuel ICBM inflames war of nerves on peninsula

Posted on : 2023-12-19 16:59 KST Modified on : 2023-12-19 16:59 KST
President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered the military to make an immediate and overwhelming response to any North Korean provocation against South Korean territory or people
This photo, released by North Korean state media, shows the July 12 launch of the solid-fuel Hwasong-18 ICBM. (KCNA/Yonhap)
This photo, released by North Korean state media, shows the July 12 launch of the solid-fuel Hwasong-18 ICBM. (KCNA/Yonhap)

North Korea launched a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Monday. The launch appears to be a response to an announcement by the US and South Korea that they will include a “nuclear operations scenario” in upcoming joint military exercises and the port call by the USS Missouri (SSN-780), a nuclear-powered submarine, at a Busan naval base on Sunday.

The last time North Korea launched a solid-fuel ICBM was on July 12, five months ago, when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un personally supervised the second test launch of the Hwasong-18.

In a session of the standing committee of South Korea’s National Security Council held shortly after the missile launch, President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered the military to make an immediate and overwhelming response to any North Korean provocation against South Korean territory or people.

The war of nerves between South and North Korea — and the corresponding level of crisis on the Korean Peninsula — appear to be heating up in the days before the ninth plenary session of the eighth Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which is supposed to be held in North Korea at the end of the year.

“The military detected one long-range ballistic missile launched by North Korea into the East Sea from the vicinity of Pyongyang at 8:24 pm today [Dec. 18]. After a high-angle launch, the missile flew for around 1,000 km before landing in the waters of the East Sea,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

The NSC standing committee identified the projectile as a “long-range ballistic missile using solid fuel.”

A solid-fuel ballistic missile can be prepared for launch much faster than a liquid-fuel missile, which must be filled with fuel. That could compromise the effectiveness of South Korea’s “kill chain” doctrine, which seeks to identify signs of a North Korean missile launch and destroy the missile on the launchpad.

South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said during a Monday appearance on broadcaster MBN that the missile launched by North Korea “is similar in altitude, range and speed to the Hwasong-18 that was fired in July.”

The Japanese government said, “The launched missile was an intercontinental ballistic missile with a maximum height of 6,000 km. It flew for around 1,000 km and remained in the air for around 73 minutes. We presume that the missile splashed down at 9:37 in the Sea of Japan outside our exclusive economic zone about 250 km to the west of Okushiri Island, Hokkaido.”

In a high-angle launch, a missile is aimed almost straight up to minimize the distance traveled. The missile’s normal range can be estimated as being two or three times its maximum height in the high-angle launch. Therefore, the ICBM launched by North Korea on Monday could presumably fly around 15,000 km — far enough to reach the US homeland — if it were launched at a standard angle of 30-45 degrees.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs also said that a short-range ballistic missile that North Korea launched from the Pyongyang area at 10:38 pm on Sunday had “landed in the East Sea after flying for around 570 km.”

That missile launch is presumed to be a show of force following the arrival of the USS Missouri, an American nuclear-propelled submarine, at the Busan naval base, which is 550 km away from Pyongyang.

North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency released a statement by the spokesman of its Ministry of National Defense responding to the US and South Korea’s decision to include nuclear war drills in their Ulchi Freedom Shield joint exercises next August, a decision made in the second meeting of their Nuclear Consultative Group on Friday in Washington.

"Clear is the intention of the US which dispatched the nuclear-powered submarine Missouri to the Korean peninsula as soon as it hatched a dangerous plot for a nuclear war in Washington,” the North Korean statement said.

“The crisis of nuclear conflict [on] the Korean Peninsula” is becoming a matter of time, not a matter of possibility, the statement went on to say, adding that “any attempt [by hostile forces] to use armed forces against [North Korea] will face a preemptive and deadly counteraction.”

The Rodong Sinmun ran a KCNA commentary it said “lashes out at south Korean puppets’ anti-DPRK moves.” The piece attacked South Korea for its role in a dispute with the North over the Comprehensive Military Agreement with the sarcastic remark that “a frightened dog barks noisier.”

“The puppet group’s disgusting rash act does not deserve even a passing note but if they go on its noisy barking, they can meet an unexpected stroke of misfortune,” the piece read.

The South Korean government reiterated its intention to take a hard-line response. Maj. Gen. Lee Seung-o, the head of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, released a statement of warning that “sternly reminded North Korea once more that it will bear full responsibility for all incidents that occur henceforth.”

“The system that’s being developed to share real-time missile alerts and related information [including launch location, direction and speed of flight, and expected target] between South Korea, the US and Japan is in the final review stage. Our three countries are in deliberations to bring that system into normal operation within a few days,” said the spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense.

Also on Monday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised to expand cooperation with North Korea during a meeting with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Park Myong-ho, who is currently visiting China.

“In a world fraught with change and instability, China and the DPRK have firmly supported and trusted each other, which demonstrates the strategic significance of China-DPRK friendship and cooperation,” Wang reportedly said, according to a press conference by the spokesperson of China’s Foreign Ministry.

“South and North Korea are endangering the lives of 80 million people on the Korean Peninsula with their tit-for-tat in this petty battle of egos. Worst of all is that there’s no indication that anyone is actively trying to manage the perilous and totally unpredictable situation on the Korean Peninsula,” said a former high-ranking official in the South Korean government.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer; Kim Mi-na, staff reporter

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

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