On March 24, North Korea launched its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from Sunan airport near Pyongyang. The latest launch came as little surprise; A spate of missile tests conducted in January hinted at a possible end to North Korea’s self-imposed moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests. But while analysts predicted that the North may test its new ICBM under the disguise of launching a reconnaissance satellite, Pyongyang dropped its old strategy of calling its ICBM launch a space launch vehicle (SLV) test as if it no longer even bothers to justify its actions. The latest test by Pyongyang and the change in its attitude reveal a discrepancy between outside observations and the actual timetable set by the regime for advancing its nuclear capabilities.
While Analysts remain divided on whether or not the missile launched on March 24th is the Hwasong-17, as claimed by the North, one thing seems clear: Pyongyang wants to be seen as having developed a super-large ICM capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. North Korea may have rushed to fire an additional missile a week after a botched test or launched a modified version of Hwasong-15 to fabricate a successful Hwasong-17 test. Hwasong-17 or not, it is evident that North Korea wants to change how the outside world perceives its capabilities. Pyongyang is desperate to be seen as capable of resisting America’s unilateral deterrence with the multi-warhead ICBM as its new leverage.
The situation began to change in January 2021, when Kim Jong-un unveiled the five-year plan for weapon systems and defense science development at the 8th Party Congress. Kim announced plans to develop weapons systems ranging from tactical nuclear weapons to a nuclear-powered submarine and is ticking the boxes on his weapons wish list through a series of tests. More recently, Kim’s regime reviewed ‘tactical measures to implement a strategic policy towards the U.S.’ during September and October last year, when North Korea staged a defense development exhibition and held the Supreme People’s Assembly. North Korea’s state-run media outlets reported that in his policy speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Jong-un called for an in-depth analysis of the Biden administration’s current stance toward the North, the U.S. political landscape, and the possibility of a sudden change in the global balance of power to map out Pyongyang’s tactical measures to deal with Washington.
As part of the five-year plan, North Korea has stressed the importance of advancing reconnaissance satellite technology since February, with Kim Jong-un himself inspecting North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration. When it was found that the projectile used in the testing process was Hwasong-17 first-stage rocket, experts thought the regime had two primary objectives: Developing a reconnaissance satellite and evaluating its super-large ICBM system before conducting a test at full range. This reinforced the view that the North will first launch an SLV to evaluate the performance of the Hwasong-17 and fire the new ICBM afterward. While experts predicted the North was very likely to launch a long-range missile camouflaged as a reconnaissance satellite around the 110th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung on April 15, the March 24 test was irrelevant to the test for reconnaissance satellite systems, and the regime claimed to have successfully test-fired a Hwasong-17, a new intercontinental ballistic missile.
Clearly, Pyongyang chose to skip an SLV launch and did not hide the nature of the latest ICBM test which appears to be carefully timed by the Kim Jong-un regime to come at a time of dysfunctional U.N. Security Council amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Experts predicted that North Korea would disguise the new ICBM as a reconnaissance satellite to give China and Russia a pretext to delay a U.S. bid to impose more sanctions on North Korea. But North Korea did not even bother to fake a space launch; it must have sensed a rare window of opportunity to steer the situation in its favor. The increasing uncertainty on Ukraine’s battlefield, however, appears to have pushed the North to move up the schedule. And on March 24, the day North Korea test-fired its ICBM, the UNSC failed to issue a statement. Pyongyang’s gambit seems to be paying off.
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