A Busy Weekend of Missile Tests in North Korea

North Korea launched a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Saturday. It is the first ICBM test conducted by the country in 2023. This also marks the fifth ICBM test in less than a year following the launches of Hwasong-15 in November 2022 (once) and Hwasong-17 in March (twice) and November 2022 (once). On Sunday, it fired two short-range ballistic missiles—60-millimeter multiple rocket launchers (MRL). In response to North Korea’s provocations, on Monday South Korea imposed additional unilateral sanctions on four individuals and five institutions involved with its nuclear and missile program.

Q1: What is the significance of these missile tests?

A1: These demonstrations might be considered missile exercising rather than developmental testing. Regarding the Hwasong-15, North Korea’s state media claimed that the ICBM test was a “surprise ICBM launching drill” under the written order of Kim Jong-un, adding that the test is “clear proof of the sure reliability of [its] powerful physical nuclear deterrent.”

Also of concern, North Korea claimed that the MRL shots were tactical nuclear attack exercises—in North Korea’s own statement: “super-large multiple rocket launchers, the tactical nuclear attack means.” The combination of the two demonstrations suggests ICBM launches to deny the U.S. access to the peninsula and tactical nuclear attacks, as suggested by North Korea, to target airbases in Gunsan and Cheongju, where U.S. F-16 fighter jets and South Korea’s F-35A stealth jets are stationed.

Q2: Why did North Korea conduct the missile launches?

A2: The ostensible justification for the launches is to counter the impending U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) nuclear tabletop exercise this week and the upcoming annual Foal Eagle/Key Resolve joint military exercise. Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, indicated that more missile tests will follow. The authors believe that these launches amount to more than political statements and that they manifest active exercising by North Korea of its missile attacks against the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

Q3: How did South Korea, the United States, and Japan respond?

A3: The three countries carried out separate joint air exercises involving a nuclear-capable U.S. B-1B bomber flanked by ROK stealth fighter jets F-35A and Japanese F-15s. These pre-planned joint air exercises came after U.S. secretary of defense Lloyd Austin made it clear during his trip to South Korea at the end of last January that the United States will deploy its strategic assets “at a faster tempo.”

Q4: What about China and Russia?

A4: On Sunday, an emergency UN Security Council meeting was held upon Japan’s request. But the body failed to produce any meaningful resolutions, sanctions, or statements on North Korea’s missile demonstrations because of continued opposition by China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow’s inaction evinces a clear lack of responsibility as Pyongyang’s actions constitute an overt violation of existing UN Security Council resolutions to which the two had previously been party. Each party, unhappy with U.S. defensive actions in Taiwan and Ukraine respectively, appears willing to allow the North Korean problem to fester.

Q5: Will there be more of North Korea’s missile provocations?

A5: Almost certainly. With these missile launches, North Korea is signaling that 2023 will not be a quiet year and could reach levels of dissonance seen in 2022 when the regime carried out 37 missile tests with over 95 missiles launched. Moreover, CSIS data shows that when the United States and ROK carry out joint military exercises amid a period of diplomatic silence between Washington and Pyongyang, then North Korea usually carries out major weapons demonstrations and blames these on U.S. “provocative” exercising. The reality, of course, is that U.S.-ROK alliance exercises are defensive in nature. The United States has publicly committed not to attack North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons in the 2005 Six-Party Joint Statement. Moreover, these exercises constitute an important demonstration of U.S. extended deterrence commitments to South Korea, particularly amid acute public concern about North Korea’s explicit nuclear threats. It is highly unlikely that the United States and South Korea will cancel any upcoming military exercises. And there remains the elusive seventh nuclear test, which North Korea has yet to execute despite indications that all preparations have been completed at the test site.

Victor Cha is senior vice president for Asia and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ellen Kim is deputy director and senior fellow with the Korea Chair at CSIS.

Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair
Ellen Kim
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Korea Chair