Mar. 6—South Korean and American officials are expecting North Korea to continue missile launches—and potentially a seventh nuclear test—amid a tense regional standoff.
South Korean and American officials are expecting North Korea to continue missile launches—and potentially a seventh nuclear test—amid a tense regional standoff.
In late February, Kim Yo Jong, the prominent sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said North Korea would turn the Pacific Ocean into a “firing range” in response to joint naval exercises between South Korea, the US and Japan off the Korean Peninsula.
The threat comes after a historic year of missile tests. In 2022, North Korea launched 95 ballistic and other missiles—more than any previous year—even as it faces harsh sanctions.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dan Leaf, who formerly served as deputy commander of US forces in the Pacific and lives in Honolulu, said tensions on the Korean Peninsula are “a case that’s far more likely to lead to conflict than US-Russia or US-China, certainly in the short term, “and that “the fact that we’re putting much more time and certainly money into the China case and the Russia-Ukraine case tells us that there’s very little appreciation for how genuinely serious this threat is.”
January was quiet on the missile front, but on Feb. 18 North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile—or ICBM—that traveled 615 miles at a “lofted angle” before plunging into the sea just west of Japan. In response, South Korea, the US and Japan held joint naval exercises in the area using ships with anti-missile systems. Once they left, North Korea fired two more ICBMs on Feb. 20, and four days later fired four strategic cruise missiles off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula.
Moon Chung-in, who served as an adviser to former South Korean President Moon Jae-in and has participated in talks with North Korean officials, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he thinks Pyongyang is “very likely to undertake a nuclear test unless there is a major breakthrough for dialogue and negotiation.”
North Korea detonated its first nuclear warhead in 2006 and has conducted six tests, most recently in 2017. Throughout much of 2022 there was widespread discussion among policymakers and analysts on when North Korea would conduct its seventh nuclear test, with broad consensus that it would happen sometime before the end of the year. It never came.
But even without a nuclear test, the North’s arsenal and capabilities have continued to expand.
“The North needs to undertake the nuclear test either to operationalize the use of its tactical nuclear weapons or to enhance its ICBM/strategic warhead capabilities,” said Moon. “I personally believe that Pyongyang is most likely to test tactical nuclear weapons rather than strategic nuclear warheads for ICBM because the former is relatively easy and less threatening to the US”
In Hawaii, missile defense has been a hot-button issue since 2018 when a false missile alert amid heightened tension between US and North Korean leaders terrified Hawaii residents. After a North Korean ballistic missile test on Oct. 3 flew an estimated 2, 850 miles—soaring over Japan before landing in the Pacific Ocean—the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted that “authorities in Japan alerted the public and advised them to take shelter. At this time NO threat to Hawai’i is anticipated .”
Moon said North Korea has developed short-range ballistic missiles aimed at South Korea, mid-range ballistic missiles at Japan, intermediate-range ballistic missiles aimed at Guam and ICBMs for the US mainland. But he added that when it comes to ICBMs, “the North has not fully shown its mastery of re-entry, accuracy, and stability … thus, I personally believe that Pyongyang cannot pose any immediate threats to the US, including Hawaii. “
However, South Korean intelligence officials think the North could be planning to test-fire ICBMS on a lower, longer trajectory.
“ICBMs have not been launched at a normal angle so far, but North Korea has all the capabilities and seems to be preparing a timeline to boost the pressure effect on the United States,” Yoo Sang-bum, a member of the South Korean parliamentary intelligence committee, told reporters in February after a briefing with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.
Diplomats, analysts and policymakers often struggle to read the North Korean government, which tightly controls the flow of information into and out of one of the world’s most isolated countries.
Kim Yo Jong has become a source of fascination among academics and journalists. She has become an increasingly visible figure, and there has been speculation that she might wield considerable power in her brother’s government. But Moon said while she plays an important role in the regime’s messaging, he doesn’t think that she actually plays a significant role in policymaking.
“She is now playing the role of mouthpiece of North Korean leadership,” said Moon. “She belongs to the Baekdu bloodline, and, thus, she personifies Kim Jong Un. Her remarks carry the weight of Kim Jong Un, but she is not Kim Jong Un. … I think an analogy of ‘good cop and bad cop “can be applied here. Kim Jong Un is a good cop, whereas Kim Yo Jong is portrayed as a hard-line bad cop.”
Leaf said North Korea analysis is often treated “like debate society or a board game, and they speculate—and even wager—on will the country collapse, will the North pop out a new nuclear weapon, will they show a new missile at parades. … Whatever we’ve been doing, and especially this speculating about missile tests, is part of focusing on the wrong things.”
Leaf notes that the Korean War, which began in 1950 when Soviet-backed North Korea invaded the American-backed South, never officially ended. The bloody war ultimately drew in the Chinese military and killed nearly 5 million people before an armistice agreement brought an end to the fighting, but no formal peace agreement has ever been signed. An enduring standoff—punctuated occasionally by violent skirmishes—has persisted ever since.
“It sounds silly, but we haven’t talked with the North Koreans about the war,” said Leaf. “They’re kind of still pissed off about the fact that we destroyed 80% of the structures in their country during the stalemate bombing from ’51 to ’53. I think that’s understandable. And we’re kind of pissed off about the atrocities and all the provocations and everything else since—also understandable—(but) we won’t get past it if we don’t begin a formal process of reconciliation.”
North Korea has pursued its nuclear program in spite of international sanctions by the United Nations. Almost all trade with North Korea is illegal until Pyongyang agrees to stop tests and give up its nuclear ambitions. Reports have emerged of severe food shortages in the country, and North Korean state media recently reported that Kim Jong Un had vowed to increase grain production.
Those in favor of sanctions argue that while they contribute to the suffering of everyday North Korean citizens, they are necessary to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions. But North Korean hackers have managed to steal funds from countries around the world, and the North Korean government has gotten involved in counterfeiting and other black-market enterprises to keep money flowing to Pyongyang’s missile program.
“If sanctions were working, they wouldn’t be able to spend so much on so many missiles,” said Leaf. “That’s kind of simple math.”
Moon said he thinks North Korean officials are telling the truth when they say launches are a response to American military maneuvers in the Korean Peninsula and argued that “if the US scales down its joint military exercises and training with the ROK forces as well as refrains from deploying its strategic weapons over the Korean Peninsula, there is a good chance that Pyongyang will respond by showing a self-restraining behavior in its military posture and that even it might return to dialogue with the US … Positive reinforcement, rather than negative reinforcement , has always proven to be very effective in dealing with North Korea.”
Leaf said the North Korean regime has been a difficult government to work with—it has a history of violating agreements and continues to have one of the worst human rights records of any country. But he argued that policymakers need to emphasize diplomacy and dialogue regardless.
“I’ve said experience—direct experience—in wars. You have to be aggressive to win,” said Leaf. “You got to be even more aggressive to make peace. That may sound contradictory, but we have to make peace a priority. … I don’t mean a peaceful situation; I’m saying a formal state of not being at war , an end-of-war agreement. And I don’t care how bitter that tastes or how difficult the negotiations are. It has to be done or we’re not getting anywhere substantive.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Korean War began in 1951. North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950.