On February 18th, North Korea launched a Hwasong-15 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) as part of a surprise drill to test the weapon’s reliability. The missile traveled approximately 560 miles in 67 minutes and landed in the Sea of Japan, 125 miles west of Oshima Island. Japan’s Government spokesperson Hirokazu Matsuno reported no casualties. This has been the first missile launch from North Korea since the 1st of January of this year.
These tests coincide with North Korean threats of “unprecedentedly strong” retaliation against the U.S. and South Korea. The threat was in response to South Korea’s recent announcement of a series of joint military drills with the United States to strengthen their cooperation and response strategy in light of the North’s growing threat. This test also comes on the heels of the 75th-anniversary celebrations of the founding of the DPRK army, where North Korea showed off its most modern equipment and elite troops in a parade as part of the celebrations in Pyongyang. Included in the parade were North Korean ballistic missiles, especially those similar to the one launched on the 18th and a new version of their solid fuel-based ICBMS.
North Korea stated that the sudden missile test was to see if their ballistic missile forces could respond rapidly to launch orders in the event of an overwhelming attack on North Korea by the U.S. and South Korea. It is part of their ongoing attempts to hone their nuclear and missile forces and ensure a second strike capability. According to Reuters, the North Korean spokesperson said the “sudden launching drill” on Saturday was “actual proof” of its efforts to turn the “capacity of fatal nuclear counterattack on the hostile forces into the irresistible one.” According to Reuters, North Korea stated that this missile test was unique in that it was ordered the day of the test and that the missile launch crew received high marks for the test, reducing the time it takes between the launch order and the actual launch of a missile.
South Korean Prime Minister Park Jin expressed concern that these tests, combined with the possibility of a seventh North Korean nuclear test, could give North Korea the knowledge and capability to develop and deploy effective tactical nuclear weapons in addition to its current strategic arsenal.
In response, the U.S. has deemed both the test and the aggressive language as needlessly raising tensions and risking destabilizing the security situation in the region. At the same time, both the South Korean President and Japanese Prime Minister condemned the tests as needlessly provocative. They also denounced North Korea’s continued prioritization of its nuclear weapons program despite increasing food insecurity and worsening economic conditions. On Sunday, February 19th, both the U.S. and South Korea carried through on their promised military drills, conducting joint training operations between South Korean and United States Air Forces. Among the participants were U.S. B1-B strategic bombers and F-16 Fighting Falcon Fighter jets. At the same time, South Korea contributed several of her F-35 II Lightnings and F-15K Slam Eagle, an F-15 Eagle model explicitly built for the South Korean Air Force.
South Korea has also been seeking reassurances from Washington that the U.S. will swiftly and decisively use its nuclear capabilities to protect its South Korean ally in the event of a North Korean attack. The U.S., in turn, has expressed a commitment to increase its deployment of strategic military assets such as fighters, strategic bombers, and aircraft carriers to East Asia in general and the Korean Peninsula in particular.
According to Reuters, many western military analysts believe North Korea will continue with the missile tests, including tests of their new sold-fuel-based ICBM displayed during the 75th Army founding celebrations. These continued tests hone North Korean nuclear capabilities and capacity and pose a grave risk to East Asian Security and stability.
The parade at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang displayed the biggest number of ICBMs yet. Photograph: KCNA/Reuters