North Korea’s weekend test of new cruise missiles for submarine launches added to its provocative start to 2024, as leader Kim Jong Un flaunts his growing nuclear arsenal and threatens nuclear conflict with Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.
Kim has gained confidence from the advancement of his nuclear weapons program and from strengthened ties with Russia as he looks to break out of diplomatic isolation and strengthen his footing against the United States.
Kim also likely wants to maintain a sense of external threat as he seeks tighter control over a populace suffering from prolonged economic woes.
North Korea’s military actions and hostile statements in January have raised concerns that it is ramping up pressure in an election year in the United States and South Korea.
Days after a year-end political conference at which Kim accused South Korea of hostility, North Korea fired hundreds of artillery rounds on three consecutive days near a disputed western sea boundary with South Korea, prompting the South to conduct similar firings in response.
While the artillery fire caused no known casualties or damage on either side, the disputed sea boundary could emerge as a crisis point.
At a Jan. 15 meeting of North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim reiterated that his country does not recognize the Northern Limit Line, which was drawn up by the U.S.-led U.N. Command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. North Korea insists upon a boundary that encroaches deeply into waters currently controlled by South Korea.
Kim said if South Korea “violates even 0.001 millimeter of our territorial land, air and waters, it will be considered a war provocation.”
Concerns about a military clash have grown in recent months as both Koreas have taken steps that breached a 2018 military agreement on reducing border tensions which had established border buffers and no-fly zones.
The poorly marked western sea boundary was the site of bloody naval skirmishes between the Koreas in 1999, 2002 and 2009. North Korea allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship in March 2010, killing 46 South Korean sailors, and its artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island near the disputed border in November 2010 killed four South Koreans.
SOLID-FUEL MISSILE TEST
On Jan. 14, North Korea conducted its first flight test of a new solid-fuel intermediate-range missile that it said was tipped with a hypersonic warhead.
The launch reflected Kim’s pursuit of more powerful, harder-to-detect weapons designed to strike remote U.S. targets in the Pacific, including the military hub of Guam.
North Korea’s existing intermediate-range ballistic missiles are powered by liquid-fuel engines, which must be loaded with fuel before a launch and cannot stay fueled for long. Missiles containing solid propellants are ready to launch faster and are easier to move and conceal, making them harder for adversaries to detect and counteract.
Since 2021, North Korea has been testing hypersonic weapons designed to exceed five times the speed of sound. If perfected, they could pose a challenge to missile defense systems because of their speed and maneuverability. So far, experts say it’s unclear whether its hypersonic vehicles have been able to consistently maintain speeds faster than Mach 5 during their tests.
North Korea has a broad range of solid-fuel short-range missiles targeting South Korea and tested a solid-fuel intercontinental-range ballistic missile for the first time last year, adding to its arsenal of long-range weapons designed to reach the U.S. mainland.
LABELING SOUTH KOREA AS TOP ADVERSARY
A day after the intermediate-range missile test, Kim declared at the Supreme People’s Assembly that North Korea is abandoning its long-standing goal of reconciliation with South Korea and ordered the rewriting of its constitution to declare that the South is its most hostile foreign adversary.