North Korea Warns with Fifth ICBM Test

At 8:24 a.m. (KST) on December 18, North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) into the East Sea (Sea of Japan). The missile, which was later confirmed to be a solid-fuel Hwasong-18, flew on a lofted trajectory and traveled 1002.3 kilometers (about 623 miles) before it fell into the waters. The test came in about 10 hours after the country fired a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) to mark the twelfth anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death and after the arrival of the U.S. nuclear-powered warship USS Missouri (SSN-780) at the naval base in Busan, South Korea. This marks North Korea’s fifth ICBM test this year, following the previous Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-17 tests in February and March, respectively, and two solid-fuel Hwasong-18 tests in April and July.

Q1: Why did North Korea fire the ICBM?

A1: In addition to testing requirements to advance its weapons capability, North Korea is presumably timing this test to the recent outcome of the second U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) Nuclear Consultative (NCG) Group held last week, in which Washington and Seoul sternly warned that the North’s nuclear attacks against the United States and its allies “will result in the end of the Kim regime.” Both sides agreed to finalize the NCG guidelines on the planning and operation of their shared nuclear strategy and conduct nuclear operation exercises during the “Ulchi Freedom Shield” exercise in August 2024.

Q2: How did South Korea, the United States, and Japan react?

A2: South Korea and the United States had detected signs of North Korea’s planned ICBM launch early on as South Korea’s Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo openly raised such a possibility last week. Both countries probably shared that information with Japan as three countries are starting to operationalize the real-time sharing of the missile warning data this month.

The ICBM test triggered U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral consultations per the Camp David Commitment to Consult. The national security advisers, as well as the top foreign ministry officials of the three countries, condemned North Korea’s two ballistic missile tests as multiple violations of the UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) (e.g., Resolutions 1695 and 1718). By contrast, China showed no urgency in its approach to North Korea’s missile tests, calling on dialogue and consultations. In the wake of the ICBM test, the agreement reached between Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and North Korean vice foreign minister Pak Myung-ho to deepen their countries’ bilateral ties suggests that Beijing seems more interested in pulling North Korea closer than reinforcing the UNSCR.

Q3: Will North Korea continue provocations?

A3: Probably. North Korea could ratchet up tensions by testing a solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile test (IRBM) or launching more military reconnaissance satellites as the country heads into the plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee this month. In addition, there is very little likelihood that North Korea will engage in diplomacy. The country seems to be receiving assistance from Russia now in exchange for its support for the latter’s war in Ukraine. Moreover, North Korea is not interested in the denuclearization objective of such talks. Pyongyang will most likely await the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November 2024. 

It is certain that the North Korean officials who deal with Washington, such as North Korean foreign minister Choe Son-hui, have read the recent Politico report about Trump possibly accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapon state and are intrigued by it (although Trump quickly denied the report). But even if Trump gets reelected, the chance that Kim Jong-un will positively respond to Trump’s overture for another summit seems not high, at least for the initial years of the Trump administration, because North Korea has Russia on its side now that helps the country to evade sanctions. Kim also may not have an appetite to meet with Trump because of his embarrassment from the collapse of the Hanoi summit. As long as the war in Ukraine continues to facilitate North Korea-Russia military cooperation, Kim will avoid any summit diplomacy with the United States.

Q4: What does this mean for U.S. policy going forward?

A4: The Biden administration must use North Korea’s missile tests as a pretext to accelerate its coordination with South Korea and Japan on (bilateral or trilateral) extended deterrence and trilateral joint military exercises.

The United States must consider whether the short-run priority of stopping North Korea-Russia arms transfers should inform policy more than the long-term goal of denuclearization for the sake of the war in Ukraine and because of possible technology transfer from Russia to North Korea in military satellites, nuclear-powered submarines, and ICBM capabilities. Historically, the Soviet Union/Russia has been stingy with providing such technology, and North Korea has usually acquired it through third parties and reverse-engineering. But Russian president Vladimir Putin may be desperate for ammunition that North Korea possesses, and as a result, North Korea may have exacted a higher price than just food and fuel. In addition, there is no guarantee that Russia can control the scientists and technology know-how from seeping into North Korea.

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 of the Korea Chair at CSIS.

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