North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Campaign

On March 15, North Korea launched the Hwasong-17 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) hours before President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea held a bilateral summit with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. The ICBM traveled up to a maximum altitude of 3,756 miles (6,045 km) and flew a distance of 621.5 miles (1,000.2 km) for over 69 minutes before it landed in the waters off the east coast, according to North Korean media. Known as the world’s largest road-mobile missile, Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada assessed that the Hwasong-17 is capable of flying up to 9,320 miles (15,000 km), which would be enough to hold the continental United States at risk. This is North Korea’s first successful launch of the Hwasong-17 since its test failure in November 2022 and also marks its second ICBM test in 2023.

But Hwasong-17 is not the only strategic asset North Korea showcased during the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) Freedom Shield (FS) exercises that kicked off last week. North Korea preempted the FS exercises by launching six Close Range Ballistic Missiles (CRBM) on March 9 and test-firing two Submarine-Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCM) on March 12, demonstrating its diversifying naval second-strike capability for the first time. After North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles from the western coast toward the East Sea on March 14, North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile from what appears a land-based missile silo yesterday.

In terms of the tempo of its missile testing, North Korea shows no sign of slowing down. The country has launched a total of 16 missiles this year so far (excluding the unconfirmed launches of four Hawsal-2 strategic cruise missile in late February). But more weapons testing will likely follow as the FS exercises continue this week, which means that the number of the country’s missiles launched by the end of March this year will far exceed its record of 15 missile launches set a year ago.

Most significantly, North Korea’s missile campaign deserves close attention because it is no longer a protest to the U.S.-ROK military exercise. When Washington and Pyongyang are not engaged in dialogue, North Korea has a historical propensity to respond the U.S.-ROK military exercise with missile tests and other provocations. So, there is a general perception that the ongoing missile provocations by North Korea is routine practice. But that is not the case anymore. As Kim Jong-un ordered the military to “[intensify] various simulated drills for real war” earlier this month, the latest flurry of North Korea’s missile launches in land and sea are tantamount to war simulation drills that aim specific targets in South Korea, Japan or even Guam and seek to test the reliability and precision of their offensive striking capability. If North Korea has succeeded in the miniaturization of nuclear warheads, these drills could become a rehearsal for tactical nuclear weapon exercises, as North Korea claimed yesterday that its military had successfully conducted tactical nuclear attack simulation drills over the weekend involving a command and control review and nuclear explosion control test. 

Certainly, North Korea’s claim of tactical nuclear attack drills needs to be verified, but the lack of international response to North Korea’s continuous violation of existing UN Security Council resolutions since last year begs the question of what can be done. In a statement released on March 15, White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson strongly condemned North Korea’s Hwasong-17 ICBM launch, calling it as “a flagrant violation of multiple of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions,” and called on all other countries to denounce these violations. G7 foreign ministers took a further step. In a joint statement released on March 19, they attributed UNSC’s inaction to “some members’ obstruction” and urged all members to show a “swift and unified response” and their commitment to existing resolutions. The ministers also flatly refused to acknowledge nuclear North Korea, noting that “North Korea cannot and will never have the status of a nuclear-weapon State.”

North Korea’s current trajectory does not bode well, especially, the possibility of North Korea’s continuous provocations next month is likely in light of Yoon’s scheduled state visit to the White House from April 26–27 and North Korea’s two major public holidays—namely, the birthday of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung on April 15 and the Korean People’s Army Foundation Day on April 25. North Korea’s statement in December last year that the country plans to complete its preparation for a military reconnaissance satellite launch by April lends credence to this likelihood.

What should Washington do? First, Washington should work with Seoul and Tokyo to swiftly implement the earlier trilateral agreement to share North Korean missile warning data in real time. In the aftermath of the normalization of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) during last week’s summit between Yoon and Kishida, there is momentum in Seoul and Tokyo to deepen trilateral information cooperation on North Korea. The three countries should also promote a regular trilateral dialogue on the extended deterrence and consider establishing a more integrated extended deterrence mechanism among the three countries. They should invite like-minded countries such as G7 member countries, Australia, and India as observers to this dialogue for enhanced regional collaboration.

Washington’s drive to strengthen trilateral cooperation with its allies should be carried out in tandem with its continued effort to restart diplomacy with North Korea and China. In light of recent signs of an emerging food crisis in North Korea, the Biden administration should start a humanitarian dialogue aimed at the North Korean people. While Pyongyang has refused overtures from Washington and Seoul, North Korea’s acceptance of nutritional goods from a Korean NGO last year is a sign that the three-plus year Covid-19 lockdown is taking its toll.

With respect to China, although U.S.-China competition has driven Beijing not to cooperate on North Korea, Washington should encourage China’s Xi Jinping’s self-professed “global diplomacy” on the Korean peninsula, engage in a quiet discussion with Beijing to temper North Korea’s testing, and indicate that Xi’s current hands-off approach has been counterproductive and will only worsen China’s external environment.

Finally, Washington should redouble efforts to confirm the special envoy for human rights abuses and begin a human rights upfront approach in the United Nations and in other venues. If China and Russia continue to block action in the UN Security Council, the United States and like-minded partners should pursue other venues like the G7, Quad, and upcoming Summit for Democracy to forge a global consensus on sanctioning the government’s inhumane treatment of its people.

Ellen Kim is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Korea Chair at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Ellen Kim
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Korea Chair