‘Upped the ante’: North Korean ICBM launch prompts fears of escalation

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North Korea launches what it claims is a new ICBM called the Hwasong 17. (KCNA official North Korean news agency)

SYDNEY — North Korea leader Kim Jong Un continued to thumb his nose at the world over the weekend, using the latest of what appears to be a carefully calibrated series of medium- and long-range missile launches to shape the strategic environment and, perhaps, ready the way for a nuclear weapons test.

Missile launches are a familiar North Korean response to joint US-South Korean military exercises, but this latest series, including the supposed launch of the long-range Hwasong-17 ICBM appears to mark an escalation, according to the Stimson Center’s Jenny Town.

“The North Koreans do usually do some kind of action to protest the exercises, but this year also upped the ante,” she told Breaking Defense. “The question is — how to step down from this ledge before an accident escalates into something much more dangerous?”

The United States, its allies and partners scrambled to condemn the Nov. 18 launch of what the country claimed was a Hwasong-17, an apparently more powerful version of the Hwasong-15. Though the launch made headlines for the Hwasong-17’s purported ability to strike deep into the continental US, experts have said its younger brother, the Hwasong-15 could do the same, even if its range not as great. But then there’s the question of whether the North Koreans actually launched what they said they launched.

“They have different types of ICBMs and they have a history of misdirection,” Ralph Savelsberg, associate professor for missile defense at the Netherlands Defence Academy, told Breaking Defense. “Obviously, something flew on the 18th, with ICBM-like performance, but we don’t know whether the footage they released, showing the new, larger Hwasong-17 and [Kim’s] daughter, was taken on that day. It could have been footage from an earlier, failed, launch.

Savelsberg said that’s what the north did last spring, the last time North Korea claimed to have successfully tested the Hwasong-17.

“On March 24th they launched a missile on a very similar trajectory as the one reported for the 18th of November. Subsequently they released a video of a Hwasong-17 launch,” Savelsberg said in an email. “However, there are indications that this footage was taken on the 16th of March, when they launched a missile that failed in flight over Pyongyang.” The missile that successfully flew in March, Savelsberg said, may have been the Hwasong-15, which first flew back in 2017.

If the more recent launch was really a Hwasong-17, the Dutch missile expert said it is a little more than twice as heavy as the Hwasong-15 and can carry “roughly twice the same payload over similar distances, so [it can take] about 2,000 kg to just about anywhere in the continental US” — further still if it’s equipped with a lighter payload. That could allow it to reach the US by flying the long way, south, around the world.

“This would be a major worry to the US, because this would circumvent US missile defenses, which are aimed at trajectories over the Northern Pacific,” he said, acknowledging he’d need to do a more detailed analysis on the viability of that option.

‘Brazen Violation’

Regardless of whether the missile is what the North Koreans appeared to show, the launch prompted US Vice President Kamala Harris to call an emergency gathering of allies on Friday at the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation to condemn the launch. Five nations — Australia, Japan, South Korea, Canada and New Zealand — joined the US in condemning the launch.

“This conduct by North Korea most recently is a brazen violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions,” Harris said in Bangkok. “It destabilizes security in the region, and unnecessarily raises tensions.”

For its part, North Korea said the launch “was conducted under the intolerable condition that the reckless military confrontational moves of the U.S. and other hostile forces persistently driving the military and political situation in the Korean peninsula to the red line have gone beyond the limit and hypocritical and brigandish sophisms have been justified even in the UN arena to brand the right of a sovereign state to self-defence as provocation in every way.”

North Korea, apparently trying a new propaganda approach, offered photos of Kim Jong Il attending the launch with his daughter. His wife also, state media said, attended the launch.

This is pretty typical language from North Korean and seems to lend weight to analysts who say the reclusive nation is performing the barrage of launches to shape the strategic environment so it can claim it’s been provoked into reacting.

“These recent activities fit into a longstanding pattern of provocative military demonstrations and weapons tests using South Korean and US activities as a pretext and justification,” longtime US national intelligence officer for North Korea Markus Garlauskas said in an email. Garlauskas was speaking about the huge surge of missile shots over the last month and the deployment of 180 military aircraft in one day by the north.

That was supposedly a response to the US and South Korea having resumed regular and extensive military exercises to the largest level since 2018, he notes.

The larger question, according to the Stimson Center’s Town in Washington, is what comes next, and how the opposing countries manage their responses.

“Instead of small salvos of short range ballistic missiles launches — which was their typical response in the past — they have now started to conduct their own live fire drills, focused on operational training,” she said in an email. “In a sense, mirroring the kind of activities the US-ROK have been engaged in. Fierce rhetorical responses to each other have only worked to up the ante, as US-ROK exercises are added and North Korea continues to engage in their own drills and missile testing.”

Town also said North Korea’s rhetoric about its nuclear program has changed. “In the past, it was always posed as conditional to the US hostile policy, leaving room for changes if the conditions were to evolve in a more positive direction. But recent statements have dropped that conditionality, simply stating that it’s no longer willing to negotiate about its nuclear program. My sense is that the photos of Kim showing his daughter this successful launch helps emphasize that notion — that this is part of the next generation’s legacy as well.”

Garlauskas, now a fellow with the Atlantic Council, has long held that North Korea would not relinquish nuclear weapons for any reason and he says they may well be using this surge of tests to prepare to move to the next level of escalation.

“This is also potentially stage-setting for escalation to new levels of weapons testing. If we proceed from the premise that North Korea is indeed preparing for a seventh nuclear test, for example, as has been widely reported in the media, then these sorts of activities allow Kim to probe and shape the narrative in advance,” he writes. “As I’ve noted before in my analysis, what Kim is looking for is to provoke a response that he can claim shows ‘US hostile policy’ to give a pretext for further escalation, while avoiding anything that would lead to a reaction that actually threatens his regime… particularly actions that would cause Beijing to really turn the screws on him.”

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