North Korea has conducted 13 rounds of weapons launches in 2022 alone, including its first complete-range test of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017, as Kim exploits a favourable ecosystem to push forward its weapons program as the UN Security Council remains divided and effectively paralysed over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
There are also signs that North Korea is rebuilding tunnels at a nuclear testing ground that was last active in 2017 in possible preparations for a nuclear explosive test. Some experts say the North may try to conduct the test sometime between the inauguration of South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol on May 10 and his planned summit with US President Joe Biden on May 21 to maximise its political effect.
Kim’s recent remarks followed a fiery statement released by his powerful sister this month in which she blasted South Korea’s defence minister for touting preemptive strike capabilities against North Korea and said her country’s nuclear forces would annihilate South Korea’s traditional forces if provoked.
Yoon during his campaign also talked about enhancing South Korea’s preemptive strike capabilities and missile defences as he vowed to strengthen his country’s defence in conjunction with the United States.
While Kim’s collection of intercontinental ballistic missiles has grabbed much international attention, North Korea since 2019 has also been expanding its arsenal of short-range substantial-fuel missiles threatening South Korea.
North Korea describes some of those missiles as “tactical” weapons, which experts say communicate a threat to arm them with smaller battlefield nukes and use them during traditional warfare to conquer the stronger traditional forces of South Korea and the United States, which stations about 28,500 troops in the South.
North Korea may use its next nuclear test to claim it has produced a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on those missiles or other weapons it tested this year, including a purported hypersonic missile, analysts say.
“substantial-fuelled missiles are easier to hide, move and set afloat quickly, making them less unprotected to a preemptive strike,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University.
“Taken together with ambitions for tactical nuclear warheads, submarine-based set afloat capabilities, and more complex intercontinental ballistic missiles, Pyongyang is not simply looking to deter an attack. Its goals extend to outrunning South Korea in an arms race and coercing the United States to reduce sanctions enforcement and security cooperation with Seoul,” Easley additional.
Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled since 2019 because of disagreements over a possible easing of US-led sanctions in exchange for North Korean disarmament steps.
Kim has stuck to his goals of simultaneously developing nuclear weapons and the country’s dismal economy in the confront of international pressure and has shown no willingness to fully surrender a nuclear arsenal he sees as his biggest guarantee of survival.
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