North Korea
The ICBM Test is a demonstration of North Korean power

ICBM launch north korea

In this photo distributed by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, walks around what it says a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on the launcher, at an undisclosed location in North Korea on March 24, 2022.


picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Uncredited

North Korea has tested an Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) for the first time since 2017. The missile was fired from a Transport Erector Launcher. Missile experts state that it was the biggest TEL-fired ICBM missile in the world, with the capacity to reach vast parts of the US. FNF North Korea expert Tim Brose says that this week´s ICBM test displays accelerated improvements of North Korean military capabilities. Why is the latest missile test significant?

Tim Brose: The test is significant for three main reasons. Firstly, it indicates that Kim Jong-un’s self-imposed moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and nuclear tests has now been broken. Secondly, the timing of the missile launch is not accidental, as it comes after South Korea has just elected a new, conservative president. Since 2012, it´s a ‘tradition’ for North Korea to conduct Nuclear- and ICBM tests after South Korean elections. Finally, the first missile launch of the novel Hwasong-17 model also displays accelerated improvements of North Korean capabilities. The regime now has an additional ICBM in its arsenal. In the past years, North Korea did announce plans to develop new hardware, such as a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV), more manoeuvrable (solid fuelled) missiles, ICBMs and hypersonic glide vehicles. Now it is happening.

What is Kim Jong-un trying to accomplish?

A myriad of justifications is involved when North Korea tests its missiles. Tests are conducted to demonstrate North Korean power globally and as a domestic message of strength to North Korean civilians. Tests are also meant to serve as deterrent against what Kim Jong-un perceives as global political interference, especially from the US and from South Korea. However, the test will not yield any concessions from the south. On the contrary, increased tension are likely. The new, conservative South Korean government will respond much harsher than the previous one.

The meetings between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, the latest was three years ago, failed to produce results. How has the West, particularly the new Biden administration, tried to stop North Koreas Nuclear Program since?

Biden’s team includes many experienced North Korean experts. They are under no illusions, understand the complexity of this issue and the attention it deserves. However, time and resources have been stretched due to events in Afghanistan, negotiating a new Iran deal, managing the corona pandemic and, now, the war in Ukraine. In the past, Biden has not taken more severe action against  Kim Jong-un as the South Korean government did not want to provoke the North. That might change now with the new conservative government in place in South Korea.

It is important to keep in mind that while Pyongyang has already been severely sanctioned and isolated, North Korea is enabled and supported by chinese banks and companies. Sanctioning and prosecuting these entities could be effective. However, Biden might not want to risk an escalating conflict with China over North Korea.

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North Korea is under heavy sanctions. What little trade there was, stopped because of closed borders due to fear of the Corona virus. Kim Jong-un told North Koreans to expect hardship. How can he afford this missile program?

Stability of the regime and military strength are utmost priorities and thus overturn any economic concerns. Tough sanctions have been implemented but there are a lot of loopholes and help from China and Russia. Living conditions in North Korea have always been very difficult. Strict border closures in an effort to prevent the spread of corona have indeed exacerbated the situation. Trains have just recently been sighted crossing the China-North Korea Border again. But trade is still insufficient. Even the most essential commodities are lacking in North Korea.

The regime has always invested heavily in its military, which is estimated to cost around 20-30% of GDP. The improvements in missile technology have impressed and surprised many missile experts over the years. Support from other countries has been rumoured, but the extend is difficult to assess.  There have been proven ties to Iran and its missile program. In term of generating income, North Korea has been accused of hacking and stealing vast amounts of cryptocurrency.

What do we know about the humanitarian situation in North Korea?

Gathering information from inside the country has been extremely difficult as nearly all remaining embassies and international organizations have left the country since the Corona pandemic started. The humanitarian situation has probably worsened due to the closure of border in an effort to keep out the virus. North Korea claims that it does not have any infections. In any case, for borders to reopen safely, the population would have to be vaccinated. So far Pyongyang has declined international assistance. Hopefully North Korea and the international community can cooperate here, despite the existing political tensions.


*Tim Brose is Program Manager North Korea at the office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Seoul.