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North Korea may be gearing up for a full ICBM test, when U.S. attention is focused elsewhere

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in this undated photo released March 12. (Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)
6 min

SEOUL — It’s about to be a volatile few months on the Korean Peninsula, just as much of the world is riveted on the crisis in Eastern Europe.

Pyongyang is showing mounting signs that it may be gearing up for a major weapons test — potentially its first since 2017 of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten U.S. cities. On Wednesday, it tested a suspected ballistic weapon that appeared to have exploded in midair after reaching an altitude of less than 20 kilometers (12 miles).

South Korea, meanwhile, is planning its own test of a solid-fuel space rocket this month, in line with its plans to develop military satellites, which would be used to monitor North Korea. In April, there will also be joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which North Korea views as “hostile.”

With a presidential transition underway in South Korea, where the president-elect vows to take a tougher stance toward Pyongyang, the next few months may lay the foundation for rocky inter-Korean relations while U.S. attention is focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and there are fewer resources to send elsewhere.

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South Korean officials are warning that a successful ICBM system test by North Korea could be imminent, joining U.S. officials in raising concerns about Pyongyang’s two ballistic missile tests on Feb. 27 and March 5 — described at the time by the North Koreans as space launches — that were apparently intended to try out parts of the missile system ahead of a full launch of a large new ICBM.

On Wednesday morning, North Korea launched a projectile that Japanese and U.S. defense officials said may have been a ballistic missile. The test was conducted near Pyongyang’s Sunan area, South Korean military officials said, which was the location of the two recent ICBM-related launches.

“Their recent SLV [space launch vehicle] launches make a lot of analysts suspect that they are testing new ICBM capabilities without the political burden of calling them ICBM tests,” said Melissa Hanham, a researcher at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. “North Korea genuinely fears for its security from the South, the U.S. and Japan. ICBMs and a nuclear program make them feel they can deter regime change and forced reunification.”

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More than four years have passed since Pyongyang tested an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Since then, Kim Jong Un’s regime has shifted its focus to building short- to intermediate-range missiles that can strike U.S. allies in the region and the U.S. forces stationed there — a strategy that has allowed Kim to advance his ballistic missile program and signal progress without directly threatening the U.S. homeland or engaging in diplomacy.

Since last fall, Pyongyang has conducted a flurry of tests as part of Kim’s five-year weapons plan. But in January, North Korea signaled that it may lift its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range weapons, as the United States issued fresh sanctions in response to the missile tests.

This is a momentous year for the Kim family, which often marks special occasions with major weapons tests. April 15 is the 110th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader. This year is also the 80th anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong Il, the late father of the current leader, who is celebrating his 10th year in power.

With such upcoming occasions, leader Kim may be facing domestic pressure to show off his accomplishments — of which there are few, given the deteriorating economy caused by a strict, self-imposed coronavirus border lockdown that has strained food supplies and cash flow amid sustained economic sanctions.

“Under the prolonged sanctions regime, North Korea finds it increasingly hard to sustain itself and is desperately seeking a way out,” said Cha Du-hyeogn, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “North Korea hopes an ICBM launch will effectively send its threat across to the United States and even extract concessions from President Biden while his foreign policy resources are directed to Ukraine.”

U.S. and South Korean officials are raising the alarm about the ballistic tests on Feb. 27 and March 5, which they believe were involved with the Hwasong-17, a new ICBM system revealed during North Korea’s October 2020 military parade.

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The Hwasong-17 has never been tested, and its length and diameter are much larger than the previously tested Hwasong-15, which had the range to deliver a single nuclear warhead anywhere in the United States, said Hanham, of Stanford University. The larger size probably means the missile is intended to carry a heavier payload the same distance.

“Thus, I am anticipating North Korea’s goal is to deliver multiple nuclear warheads to the U.S.,” she said, adding that such a capability would make it harder for missile defense systems to intercept an attack.

South Korean media reported Wednesday that officials were analyzing whether the morning’s test could have been the anticipated Hwasong-17. North Korean state media usually issues a statement about a weapons test the following day, but it is unclear whether it would acknowledge a failed test.

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Meanwhile, South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has vowed to pursue weapons systems that would allow South Korea to attack North Korea if there is a credible and imminent military threat, and to strengthen the security alliance with the United States. He also pledged to expand the antimissile system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) as a defensive measure. Yoon is to take office May 10.

In a statement Tuesday, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry again blamed inter-Korean tensions on the United States and its “hostile policy.”

“The issue of the Korean peninsula has resulted from the hostile policy of the United States towards the DPRK,” the statement said, using the abbreviation for the country’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “And it is a truth illustrated by the history that unless the ‘root cause’ is completely eliminated, durable peace and security of the Korean peninsula and the region as a whole cannot be thought of.”

Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo contributed to this report.