North Korea launched a suspected Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Thursday morning, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said. This ICBM flew about 760 km with an altitude of 1,920 km from the Sunan area of Pyongyang, the North’s capital, around 7:40 a.m.
According to the South’s JCS, the missile seems to have failed after the second stage separation.
Thursday’s ICBM test was the first of its kind since May. North Korea claimed to have successfully tested the Hwasong-17 ICBM in March, but the South Korean and U.S. militaries concluded that Pyongyang had actually tested its older Hwasong-15 ICBM, an indication that the North’s newest ICBM is not yet ready to be deployed.
At 8:39 a.m., an hour after the North fired a suspected ICBM, it launched two short-range ballistic missiles from the Gaecheon area of the South Pyongan Province. The missiles flew about 330 km with an altitude of 70 km.
Thursday’s missile tests came a day after North Korea launched an unprecedent barrage – more than 25 missiles and 100 artillery shells – in response to the extensive South Korea-U.S. joint military air drill, known as Vigilant Storm. Pyongyang already warned that it would take follow-up measures against the drill.
On Thursday, the South’s JCS again called the North’s missile launches “a clear violation of the U.N. Security Council resolutions.” Seoul urged Pyongyang to immediately halt the activities, the JCS called an act of provocation harming the peace and security of the international community.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered his military to take a firm military readiness posture as the North is increasing the scale of its provocation toward the country. He also ordered the military to strengthen the capabilities of South Korea-U.S. extended deterrence and trilateral security cooperation with the United States and Japan.
U.S. National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson also condemned the North’s ICBM launch in a statement.
“This launch, in addition to the launch of multiple other ballistic missiles this week, is a flagrant violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions and needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilizing the security situation in the region,” Watson said. While reiterating the U.S. pledge to take “all necessary measures” to ensure the security of its allies in the region, she also said the North’s missile tests demonstrate that it “continues to prioritize its unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs over the well-being of its people.”
Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-based news service, reported on Thursday that the North might have spent nearly $70 million firing over two dozens missiles on Wednesday – around the same amount that North Korea spent to import an entire year’s worth of rice from China before the COVID-19 pandemic began. The report was based on an analysis by Bruce Bennett, an adjunct international and defense researcher at the RAND Corporation.
In response to the recent series of North Korean missile launches, South Korea and the United States agreed to extend the schedule for Vigilant Storm – which was scheduled to end on Friday – but have not shared more details.
Update: Late on Thursday, KCNA, North Korea’s main state media outlet, issued a statement attributed to Pak Jong Chon, secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, denouncing the extension of Vigilant Storm as “a very dangerous and false choice.” Pak warned “The U.S. and south Korea will get to know what an irrevocable and awful mistake they made.”
As North Korea launched its suspected Hwasong-17 ICBM a day after it launched multiple missiles, including its ballistic missiles, it may carry out a seventh nuclear test as the next step, considering the stages it followed for the previous nuclear tests. Seoul’s spy agency already shared its analysis that the North could test its nuclear weapons sometime between October 16 to November 7, between the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (which ended on October 22) and the U.S. mid-term elections on November 8.
The scale of the tit-for-tat measures between the two Koreas has increased while both sides justify their military activities as “defensive.” North Korea repeatedly stated that the South Korea-U.S. joint military drills are aggressive; Pyongyang considers the exercises to be rehearsal for an invasion. On the other hand, South Korea has reinvigorated its joint military exercises with the United States due to the North’s repeated missile launches amid the deadlocked nuclear talks. Since the failed Hanoi summit with then-U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019, the North’s leader Kim Jong Un nullified his self-moratorium on the nuclear and ICBM tests, boosting his country’s missile developments.
Seoul and Washington have consistently reached out to Pyongyang to renew the stalled dialogue. However, Pyongyang has not responded to their dialogue efforts but test-fired its missiles again and again.
Considering the statements from Pyongyang officials and the spate of missile tests since the nuclear negotiations broke down, Kim is trying to complete his masterplan to develop powerful nuclear weapons in a bid to put the United States in a position where it must eventually engage in arms control negotiations with his country.
However, that is off the table for Washington, as arms control negotiations with North Korea would indicate that the United States recognizes the North as a nuclear-armed country – which cannot be considered due to the nuclear domino effect it would have in the region. Already, support is growing within South Korea for Seoul to develop its own nuclear weapons, and if that happened Japan would not be far behind.
Washington is not taking Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs as a priority due to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and tensions in the Taiwan Strait. The United States seems content with keeping the status quo on the Korean Peninsula rather than seeking a breakthrough.
Due to the U.S. insistence on CVID (complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization) on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea seems to have decided to play a power game until the 2024 U.S. presidential election – when Trump could possibly retake power. If Kim’s gamble holds, he will be able to negotiate with his preferred leader of the United States again – this time armed with more powerful and new nuclear weapons.