Korean Peninsula Back in Limelight Following ICBM Launch
Prof Rajaram Panda
Introduction

On 12 July 2023, North Korea fired a Hwasong-18 solid-propellant intercontinental range ballistic missiles (ICBM), the longest-ever flight for a North Korean missile, that flew for 74 minutes, triggering fresh tensions in the Korean Peninsula. Hwasong-18’s launch was the second successful flight test by Pyongyang. The missile flew on a lofted trajectory as it was deliberately launched on a sharp angle upward to reduce its travel range, and from an identical launch point as was the last launch in April 2023.

Pyongyang has launched around 100 missiles since early 2022, including the one on 12 July. When the US, Japan, South Korea and other Asian nations condemned Pyongyang’s action, Pyongyang reacted by firing two more short-range ballistic missiles into the South China Sea on 19 July.[1] The launches were from the Sunan area in Pyongyang in early morning of 19th and flew some 550 km before splashing into the sea. In further show of force, North Korea again fired several cruise missiles on 22 July into the Yellow Sea between China and the Korean Peninsula.[2]

Such actions and countermeasures by the US, Japan and South Korea have threatened to shift focus of Asian security from China’s threat of use of force against Taiwan to the Korean Peninsula and exposed the fragility of Asian security. In fact, the pendulum of security matrix has been swinging back and forth between these two potential flashpoints in the Asian region, though South China Sea remains as the third potential flashpoint. When the world attention is currently focussed on the Ukraine war, the Korean issue again brought the security issue back in focus.

Pyongyang was provoked when USS Kentucky, a nuclear-capable strategic submarine docked in Busan, 320 Km southeast of Seoul coinciding with the inaugural session of a new South Korea-US security dialogue of the Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) in Seoul.

Relevance of the NCG

This meeting was held to bolster America’s extended deterrence commitment by using the full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear weapons, to defend its ally. In an unusual development complicating the NCG meeting, an American soldier named Travis King crossed into North Korea at the border on his own volition around the time at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Panmunjom when the NCG was to meet. This however did not impact the long-lauded NCG meeting. Till the time of writing this article, Pyongyang has remained tight-lipped about the unauthorised dash of the soldier and the reclusive regime has not revealed his whereabouts.

The establishment of the NCG was first announced in April 2023 as part of the Washington Declaration according to which the leaders of the US and South Korea laid out plans to strengthen US extended deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear threats.[3] The NCG emerged amid growing calls in South Korea for it to build its own nuclear bombs, a step the US opposes. The contours and scope of the NCG were debated and thrashed out between 30 member delegation including nuclear experts led by Indo-Pacific National Security Coordinator Kurt Campbell with his Korean counterpart Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo. The objectives of the NCG were meant for consultation in crises and contingencies, integrating America’s nuclear military capability with South Korea’s conventional capability, information-sharing protocols and so on.[4]

In January 2023, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had visited Seoul. The two allies agreed to increase the pace and scope of military exercise and to expand intelligence sharing in response to the growing threat from North Korea. Austin assured South Korea that the US military would employ the full range of US defence capabilities, including conventional, nuclear, and missile-defence capabilities to defend Seoul. This was Austin’s first trip to Korea since his last in May 2022.

The joint statement that was issue reiterated that any North Korean use of nuclear weapons of mass destruction against the US or its allies would "result in the end of that regime," and that a nuclear attack against South Korea would "be met with a swift, overwhelming and decisive response." This commitment also ended the debate, at least for now, in South Korea possibly revisiting its nuclear options as the NCG offered “sufficient and assured extended deterrence”. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol also pledged to stand by Seoul’s obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.[5] He remarked that the strengthening the US “extended deterrence” is the starting point for building a strong and effective “deterrence capability” that carries out actual efforts to block North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat at its source.

Visit of USS Kentucky to Busan and North Korea’s Reaction

When the US sent USS Kentucky, an American Ohio-class nuclear submarine to the Korean port of Busan, it was both a warning to Pyongyang and a manifestation of US commitments to defend its ally. USS Kentucky’s port visit marked the first by an American nuclear-capable strategic submarine (SSBN) since USS Robert E. Lee in March 1981.[6] USS Kentucky was escorted by two US guided missile destroyers. The US Forces Korea in a statement said the visit "reflects the United States' ironclad commitment to the Republic of Korea," and also "demonstrates the flexibility, survivability, readiness, resolve, and capability of the U.S. Navy submarine forces."[7] In addition to the visit by the USS Kentucky, the US currently has about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea.

North Korea’s reactions by the missile firings are acts of significant provocation that harms peace in the Korean Peninsula and the international community, and a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Pyongyang claimed the launch of Hwasong-18 ICBM on 12 July 2023 was to boost its nuclear forces and a show of force against the US “aggression”.[8]

By dispatching the submarine, the US realised a key pledge President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol made at a summit in April 2023 during the latter’s visit to Washington. At that time, the idea of the NCG was announced modelled on nuclear consultations within NATO and gave some insights to South Korea about what and how the US would respond if its ally faces a potential conflict with nuclear-armed North Korea.

Pyongyang was not deterred and accused the US of flying illegal reconnaissance missions and warned of consequences of dispatching a nuclear missile submarine. South Korea felt comfortable that the USS Kentucky provides a launch platform for submarine-launched ballistic missiles and the most survivable leg of the nuclear triad as it has the ability to operate anywhere in the world. The submarine can carry 20 Trident II ballistic missiles with a range of some 12,000 km and thus the most powerful nuclear assets in the world. North Korea’s solid-fuel Hwasong-18 ICBM is no match to the SSBM, thereby exposing the imbalance in nuclear capabilities between the US and North Korea.

It was also announced that a trilateral summit among the US, Japan and South Korea shall be held in the Japanese city of Nagano in August 2023 to discuss the situation on the Korean Peninsula. The powerful sister of Kim Jong-un, Kim Yo Jong reacted angrily to the NCG and slammed the talks as a “meeting openly discussing the use of nukes against” Pyongyang. She urged the US to halt its “foolish act of provoking” the North and hinted that more weapon tests could be in the cards. She justified the launch as North Korea’s legitimate right necessary for self-defence and blamed the US for elevating risk of war.[9]

It is very likely that Pyongyang shall continue to test its Hwasong-18, which is capable of delivering a nuclear bomb to the whole of continental US and could even be a test-bed for a future multiple warhead delivery system. If Pyongyang succeeds in stabilising and changing angles during flight, it would be half-way to a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV). Such a weapon would potentially allow for a single missile to drop nuclear warheads on a broad swath of targets, complicating missile defence efforts.[10] North Korea could also conduct a seventh nuclear test and that would not be surprise if it happens.

At a time when the peoples in the country are starving amid rampant malnourishment and faced with heavy sanctions, the regime still has been able to find resources that it has invested to achieve further sophistication in its missile development programmes. This feat remains a mystery to any outside analyst since the regime is reclusive and there is no easy source of information that could be credible.[11]

Trilateral Missile Defence Drill

Ahead of the trilateral summit in August 2023 in Nagano, the navies of the US, Japan and South Korea held a rare joint missile defence exercise in the Sea of Japan after North Korea’s ICBM launch. Thus it transpired that North Korea’s continued weapons tests pushed trilateral security ties closer than ever. The trilateral maritime exercise conducted in international waters featured Aegis destroyers from each country and simulated a hypothetical ballistic missile launch.[12] The drills were the fourth of their kind since Yoon Suk-yeol took office to address regional security challenges amid stressed security environment.[13]

Both Japan and South Korea are also mulling over the idea of launching a mechanism to share real-time warning data on North Korean missile launches by independently linking their radars via a US system in order to improve detection capabilities as the North continues to fire off missiles at an unprecedented manner, thereby share delicate information instantly. Seen differently, the two Asian allies of the US have buried their bitter historical past and warmed relations as a result of growing nuclear and missile threat from North Korea.

UN Security Council Condemns ICBM Launch

In an emergency meeting, the US and 12 other members of the UN Security Council met and sought to hold North Korea accountable for the recent missile launch but Russia and China vetoed. Making its first appearance at the UN since 2017, North Korean Ambassador to the United Nations Kim Song rejected international condemnation of the missile launch and insisted that it was a legitimate test that had no effect on the security of any neighbouring nation.[14] Condemning the convening of the Security Council, Song categorically rejected the charge and argued that US-South Korea joint military exercises are aimed at invading North Korea. This, he said, will bring a nuclear war to the Korean Peninsula. Song placed the blame solely on the US for the current situation and warned that it was up to Washington to decide whether an “extreme situation” will occur.[15]

North Korea is aware that China remains its biggest supporter and benefactor. As a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power, China refused to hold North Korea accountable. Instead, China accused the US of escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula through its joint military exercises with South Korea. Russia, another long-time supporter of North Korea and a permanent member of the UNSC endorsed China’s argument. The Security Council meeting adjourned without a vote.

Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo Jong also denounced the UNSC as a “new Cold War” organisation under the control of the US and the West. Blaming Washington’s “anti-DPRK nuclear confrontation policy” for tensions in the Peninsula, Jong singled out the US deployment of nuclear submarines to South Korea and the creation of the NCG to discuss nuclear planning and said such measures pose “the most direct threat to the security” of North Korea and the region.[16]

Other condemnation also followed. The foreign ministers of G-7 countries and senior official representing the European Union also condemned North Korea’s ICBM launch in the strongest terms. In a joint statement, they denounced Pyongyang’s activities as unlawful, saying that the launches pose a grave threat to regional and international peace and stability undermining the global non-proliferation regime.[17] The G-7, EU and three other countries appealed to China to help stop North Korea evading UN sanctions by using Chinese territorial waters in Sansha Bay as refuge to facilitate trade of sanctioned petroleum products. Beijing is unlikely to take any cognizance of such accusations.

Around this time the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were holding their annual conference where participants also condemned Pyongyang’s ICBM launch. In the absence of North Korea’s foreign minister Choe Son Hui, North Korea’s envoy to Indonesia An Kewang II in a rare appearance participated and defended his country’s position on the nuclear issue.[18]

In the meantime, South Korea reacted strongly and imposed new unilateral sanctions against several North Korean individuals and entities over their alleged roles in advancing the country’s nuclear ambitions. The new sanctions targeted four senior North Korean officials as well as three firms accused of generating illicit funds for Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.[19]

What Next?

Even as North Korea remains stubborn in its stance and unlikely to change stance, diplomacy has not lost its relevance. Regime survival is the sole consideration for the Kim Jong-un regime and possession of nuclear weapons is the only insurance against such a risk. Pyongyang seems to be testing the patience of those nations that oppose its policies. Though the US remains pre-eminently superior to any other country in any measure, a smaller country can also do damage to the US interests in some way in a given situation. Any confrontation on any account would not be of any country’s interests. Each country has its own priority which need not necessarily be palatable to another country. Therefore, door to diplomacy seems to be the only option that should never be closed.

Of all the countries that oppose, Japan included, it is Japan that seems to be willing to keep the dialogue channel open and explore possibility to engage with North Korea even though the country’s security is always exposed to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. Though Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s aim is to resolve the long-standing abduction issue, he ought to perform a careful balancing act to ensure its outreach to Pyongyang does not undermine Japan’s alliance relationship with the US and improved ties with South Korea.[20] What looks promising is that North Korea has not declined Kishida’s offer for a summit with Kim Jong-un. Kishida needs to factor the possibility that the North Korean leader may be thinking to leverage Kishida’s offer to render the trilateral alliance between the US-Japan and South Korea ineffective or at least create some fissures. Kishida needs to be careful to invest so much on North Korea if he does not have endorsement to his initiative from the US and South Korea. The prognosis for the future possible resolution of North Korea’s nuclear issue does not look promising.

References

[1] “N. Korea fires 2 short-range ballistic missiles into East Sea: JCS”, The Korea Times, 19 July 2023, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2023/07/103_355219.html
[2] “North Korea fires ‘several’ cruise missiles into sea, South says, amid soaring tensions”, The Guardian, 22 Julky 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jul/22/north-korea-fires-several-cruise-missiles-into-sea-south-says-amid-soaring-tensions
[3] Rajaram Panda, “Significance of ‘Washington Declaration’- Analysis”, 15 May 2023, https://www.eurasiareview.com/15052023-significance-of-washington-declaration-analysis/
[4] Eunice Kim, “US, South Korea Kicks Off Nuclear Consultative Group in Seoul”, 18 July 2023, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/rok/2023/rok-230718-voa02.htm?_m=3n.002a.3671.on0ao069c5.3erk#
[5] Jesse Johnson, “U.S. nuclear sub visits South Korea for first time in decades as allies hold key talks”, The Japan Times, 18 July 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/07/18/asia-pacific/south-korea-us-nuclear-consultative-group-first-meeting/?utm_source
[6] Colin Zwirko, “North Korea launched Hwasong-18 ICBM as show of force against US: State media”, 13 July 2023, https://www.nknews.org/2023/07/north-korea-launched-hwasong-18-icbm-as-show-of-force-against-us-state-media/; Jeongmin Kim, “US nuclear missile submarine visits South Korea for first time in four decades”, 18 July 2023, https://www.nknews.org/2023/07/us-nuclear-missile-submarine-visits-south-korea-for-first-time-in-four-decades/
[7] Jeff Seldin, “US Nuclear Submarine Visits South Korea in Show of Force”, 18 July 2023, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2023/07/mil-230718-voa01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3671%2eon0ao069c5%2e3erp
[8] Colin Zwirko, “North Korea launched Hwasong-18 ICBM as show of force against US: State media”, 13 July 2023, https://www.nknews.org/2023/07/north-korea-launched-hwasong-18-icbm-as-show-of-force-against-us-state-media/
[9] Shreyas Reddy, “Kim Yo Jong says ‘unkind things’ await US after it slams North Korea’s ICBM test”, 14 July 2023, https://www.nknews.org/2023/07/kim-yo-jong-says-unkind-things-await-us-after-it-slams-dprks-latest-icbm-test/
[10] Johnson, n. 4.
[11] Ankit Panda, “A remarkable success: North Korea stuns with second test of solid-fuel ICBM”, 13 July 2023, https://www.nknews.org/pro/a-remarkable-success-north-korea-stuns-with-second-test-of-solid-fuel-icbm/
[12] Shreyas Reddy, “US, ROK and Japan hold missile defense drills after North Korean ICBM launch”, 17 July 2023, https://www.nknews.org/2023/07/us-rok-and-japan-hold-missile-defense-drills-after-north-korean-icbm-launch/
[13] Jesse Johnson, “Japan, South Korea and U.S. hold trilateral missile defense drill after North's ICBM launch”, The Japan Times, 16 July 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/07/16/national/us-japan-south-korea-trilateral-missile-defense-exercises/?utm_source
[14] “US calls for UNSC action against N. Korean ICBM test, but China, Russia veto”, The Korea Times, 15 July 2023, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2023/07/103_354912.html
[14] Ifang Bremer, “North Korea warns of ‘nuclear crisis’ in rare comments at UN Security Council”, 14 July 2023, https://www.nknews.org/2023/07/north-korea-warns-of-nuclear-crisis-in-rare-comments-at-un-security-council/
[16] Shreyas Reddy, “Kim Yo Jong says ‘unkind things’ await US after it slams North Korea’s ICBM test”, 14 July 2023, https://www.nknews.org/2023/07/kim-yo-jong-says-unkind-things-await-us-after-it-slams-dprks-latest-icbm-test/
[17] “G7 Foreign Ministers, EU High Rep. Condemn N. Korea's ICBM Test”, 14 July 2023, http://world.kbs.co.kr/service/news_view.htm?lang=e&id=In&Seq_Code=179112
[18] Shreyas Reddy, “North Korean envoy faces criticism of latest ICBM launch at ASEAN forum”, 17 July 2023, https://www.nknews.org/2023/07/north-korean-envoy-faces-criticism-of-latest-icbm-launch-at-asean-forum/
[19] Shreyas Reddy, “Seoul slaps new sanctions on North Korea after latest ICBM test”, 14 July 2023, https://www.nknews.org/2023/07/seoul-slaps-new-sanctions-on-north-korea-after-latest-icbm-test/
[20] Keita Nakamura, “Japan's willingness to engage with North Korea may test patience of partners”, The Japan Times, 15 July 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/07/15/national/north-korea-japan-negotiations-focus/?utm_source

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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