North Korea claims that it successfully tested its new Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which first appeared in a military parade in October 2020, on March 24, eight days after another suspected ballistic missile blew up immediately after liftoff.
However, the South Korean Defense Ministry says what the North tested on March 24 was not the Hwasong-17, but the Hwasong-15.
In a closed briefing to the National Assembly, the Defense Ministry reported to lawmakers that the missile launched on March 24 seems more like the Hwasong-15 than the Hwasong-17 based on the ministry’s analysis of the performance of the missile and video footage released by the North’s state media on March 25.
In the heavily edited video released by the North’s state media a day after its ICBM test, the missile launch was conducted under clear skies. However, the Sunan area, near Pyongyang, was cloudy on March 24. In this context, Seoul suspects that the missile launch captured in the video might be scenes from the failed missile test on March 16.
Also, the directions of the shadows in the video seem to suggest the footage was taken in the morning. The launch on March 24 was taken in the afternoon; the failed missile test on March 16 was conducted in the morning.
Based on these points, Seoul believes that the North’s claim that it successfully tested its new Hwasong-17 ICBM on March 24 is deceptive.
Why would North Korea claim that it successfully tested its new Hwasong-17 ICBM if it actually tested the Hwasong-15?
Ha Tae-keung, a lawmaker of the People Power Party, told reporters on Tuesday that the failed launch on March 16 caused civilian damage. Ha said that fragments of the exploded missile might have rained down on Pyongyang. As it was reported that the missile exploded at an altitude of less than 20 kilometers on March 16, Pyongyang citizens might have witnessed the event and seen or experience damage caused by falling debris, Ha said.
North Korea might have been trying to save face with both its own people and the international community by claiming a landmark achievement on March 24: the first successful launch of a brand-new missile.
A U.S. official also delivered a similar analysis to the Washington Post, saying that the North’s latest missile launch appeared to be a “modified version of the Hwasong-15,” which was the last ICBM that the North tested in November 2017. Although the missile flew higher and farther than the Hwasong-15 launched in 2017, U.S. officials agree with Seoul that North Korea did not test its Hwasong-17 ICBM last week.
North Korea has not responded yet to Seoul and Washington’s skepticism toward its claimed Hwasong-17 ICBM test. However, the North’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un recently emphasized again the importance of strengthening North Korea’s “self-reliant” defense and military capabilities as the stalled nuclear talks have de facto been dormant.
“Our state defense capability will make thorough preparations for long confrontation with U.S. imperialism on the basis of the tremendous military technical force unflinching even to any military threat and blackmail,” Kim said in the North’s state media reports on its ICBM test conducted on March 24.
Whether the missile was the Hwasong-17 or Hwasong-15, as of March 24 Kim has officially ended his self-moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests. The ICBM test was widely predicted, as Kim has repeatedly said he no longer felt bound by his self-moratorium after he failed to entice then-U.S. President Donald Trump to lift the devastating economic sanctions against his country at the Hanoi summit in 2019. Also, as North Korea’s economy has plummeted due to drastic anti-pandemic measures, such as closing the borders to all international trade, Kim had no choice but to test more missiles to show his power – not only toward the international community but also to his own people.
North Korea’s most important event for this year – the 110th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the country and late grandfather of Kim Jong Un – is scheduled on April 15. With that in mind, Kim’s next move may be a nuclear test around that date. North Korea has been accused of restoring its Punggye-ri nuclear site in recent weeks.
There may be some developments in North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, but, as the North had already conducted nuclear and ICBM tests five years ago, there might be nothing new for the U.S. and South Korean intelligence authorities to look at. In this context, the U.S. and South Korea’s public skepticism toward the North’s ICBM test last week might be strategic nonchalance, intended to provoke Pyongyang to show off more advanced missiles so that they can analyze more of North Korea’s missile capabilities.
Meanwhile, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that it had successfully tested a solid-fuel space rocket. It is the first major missile test tied to its reconnaissance satellite since the U.S. and South Korea eased the missile restrictions on Seoul last year. Today’s missile test could be seen as a corresponding measure against North Korea’s ICBM test, as the Defense Ministry said that the space rocket launch was conducted “at a very grave time” and cited the North’s recent ICBM test.
On the other hand, Seoul’s space rocket developments have been progressing according to a schedule, with South Korea aiming to send a reconnaissance satellite into orbit later this year. So North Korea might have scheduled its own missile test in order to pre-empt Seoul’s scheduled tests.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s peace process failed to make substantive progress on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Based on South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s hawkish stance on North Korea, we can expect Seoul to deploy or develop more advanced missile programs to strengthen its self-defense capabilities under the next administration. South Koreans will likely support such moves, as nearly three quarters of them now support developing the country’s own nuclear weapons. As a state member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Seoul cannot develop or deploy its own nuclear weapons on its soil; instead, it is ostensibly protected under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
The arms race on the Korean Peninsula will be intensified this year. Seoul will not actively seek to engage in inter-Korean dialogues until Pyongyang takes irreversible or substantive steps toward denuclearization. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un emphasized that his country’s military capabilities “can not be bartered nor be bought with anything,” a clear sign that he is not willing to trade away the North’s nuclear or missile programs for sanctions relief.
At some point, Seoul, Washington, and Pyongyang may eventually sit down at the table for the arms control talks, but no one knows what the red lines of the two Koreas’ missile developments are at this time.