North Korea Tests Missile over Japan

On October 3, 2022, North Korea fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), Hwasong-12, over the Japanese archipelago into the Pacific Ocean. According to reports, the missile was launched from Mupyong-ri in Jagang Province, located near the North Korean border with China.  The missile flew over 2,850 miles east of Japan and demonstrated a capability to reach the U.S. island of Guam from Pyongyang, just like the September 2017 Hwasong-12 test that overflew Japan.

This latest missile test—the fifth test in the past nine days—adds to the record pace of North Korean missile demonstrations this year. This is the 23rd missile event by North Korea this year, already three more than the previous record of 20 set in 2016, with three more months left in the year.

Q1: What is the significance of North Korea’s IRBM test over Japan? 

A1: North Korea’s IRBM test has developmental purposes in advancing the science behind the regime’s nuclear and missile threat to the U.S. homeland. This test was the longest distance carried by one of its missiles thus far.

Politically, the test could be a response to U.S. vice president Kamala Harris’s visit to Japan and Korea last week when she made strong statements in support of U.S. extended deterrence commitments to allies. It could also be a response to U.S.-ROK joint military exercises and the deployment of the USS Ronald Reagan nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to the region, as well as the recent Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG) talks in the United States between Washington and Seoul that featured a visit by ROK Ministry of National Defense (MND) officials to a U.S. strategic bomber.

North Korea is taking advantage of the distraction caused by the war in Europe to cement its status as a nuclear weapons state that can target the U.S. homeland. Kim Jong-un knows that his actions do not take place in a vacuum and probably sees advantage to overloading the Biden administration’s plate, which is already full with Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats and Xi Jinping’s military drills around Taiwan.

Q2: How did the United States and its allies respond?

A2: The Tuesday morning missile test prompted Japan to issue a rare seek shelter alert for its citizens. In response to the test, the United States and South Korea conducted a “combined attack squadron flight and precision bombing drill” at an uninhabited island in the sea between Korea and China. Both countries also conducted a live-fire drill during which one of the malfunctioning Hyunmoo-2 ballistic missiles fell and caused an explosion in a military air base in Gangnueng. The United States also conducted F-35 flights with its Japanese counterparts in the sea between Korea and Japan. The USS Ronald Regan aircraft carrier, which left South Korea’s east coast after it participated in the U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral naval drills, was quickly redeployed to the region to demonstrate the U.S. security commitments to its allies and is set to join new trilateral joint military exercises starting October 6.

The test was roundly criticized by top officials in South Korea, Japan, and the United States, with South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol vowing a resolute response and Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida calling it an “outrageous act.” President Biden during his call with prime minister Kishida also reaffirmed the United States’ “ironclad” security commitment to the defense of Japan.

Meanwhile, the United States, joined by the United Kingdom, France, Albania, Norway, and Ireland, called for a UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting on October 5 to discuss North Korea’s missile provocation. Disagreements already emerged among UNSC members, however, as China and Russia opposed public discussion of the issue, arguing that the UNSC response should help alleviate the situation on the peninsula.  

Q3: What is likely to happen next? 

A3: In the past, a sequence of North Korean ballistic missile tests has been followed by a nuclear test. CSIS satellite imagery shows that the preparations for a nuclear test appear completed, with the decision on timing left to political leaders. The test could take place sometime between October 16, when Beijing is set to hold the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, and November 8, when U.S. midterm elections take place.

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 CSIS Korea Chair. Andy Sau Ngai Lim is an associate fellow with the CSIS Korea Chair.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

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