The Interplay of Missile Launches: Analyzing the South-North Korea Situation

  Focus - Allegati
  25 maggio 2023
  19 minuti, 30 secondi


The Korean Peninsula has been a source of geopolitical tension for decades, with South Korea and North Korea engaging in a complex relationship fraught with political, military, and diplomatic challenges. Recent missile launches by North Korea have further exacerbated this delicate situation, necessitating a comprehensive analysis to understand the dynamics at play and their potential implications. Starting with an overview of the key events and milestones that have influenced the relationship between the two Koreas since Kim Jong-Un established, this analysis will delve into the motivations behind North Korea's missile launches, the responses from South Korea, and the broader regional and global implications of this ongoing tension. Finally, the latest reveal of a new spy satellite launch will be discussed. The aim of this research is to interpret the intricacies of the South-North Korean relationship following the necessity for a peaceful resolution that remains critical.

1. Key Events since Kim Jong-Un Establishment

The North Korean nuclear program accelerated with the current supreme leader Kim Jong-Un. Since his establishment in 2011, the testing of nuclear weapons and new missiles has been more or less constant despite the promises and agreement in favor of suspension. For instance, in 2012 a suspension was promised in exchange for food aid but soon after the third nuclear test of the country was done. Because of this instability and the challenge for security, in 2017 South Korea implemented a new missile defense system with the collaboration of the United States. This system is called THAAD – which stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense – and it intercepts ballistic missiles in their final, or terminal, phase of flight. It employs an X-band radar and a single-stage, hit-to-kill interceptor to counter ballistic missiles both inside and outside the atmosphere. It has shown capability against short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in flight tests.

Source: Lockheed Martin, 2017, How THAAD works, Vox

That year North Korea conducted a nuclear test and launched twenty-three missiles, including two over Japan. The tests featured weapons powerful enough to reach the majority of the planet, including the country's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The implementation of the THAAD did not only anger North Korea, but China too, claiming that it would destabilize regional security (BBC, 2017). In fact, they asserted that the anti-missile system could be altered to peek into its territory as shown in the picture below. Beijing thus replied by restricting Chinese group tours to South Korea and destroying South Korean retail major Lotte's China business, which had given land for the missile system (Kim Tong-Hyung, 2022).

Source: 38 North / U.S.-Korea Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University

South Korea's previous president, Moon Jae-In, a liberal who sought engagement with North Korea, attempted to mend relations with Beijing by pledging the "Three Nos": Seoul would not deploy any additional THAAD systems, would not participate in US-led missile defense networks, and would not form a trilateral military alliance with Washington and Tokyo.

The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, provided an odd avenue for rapprochement as tensions on the Korean Peninsula reached their highest point in years, with Kim Jong-Un and US President Donald Trump swapping threats and insults. Moon met with Kim Yo-Jong, Kim's sister, and a series of high-level contacts were established between the North and South. These preliminary interactions cleared the way for a summit in April 2018 at which the leaders of North and South Korea met for direct talks for the first time in almost a decade. At the summit's end, Moon and Kim signed a joint declaration promising to work toward "complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula." Looking at the successive increasing North Korean missile launches, however, it is difficult to give much credit to this statement. Then the Covid-19 outbreak struck, severely isolating North Korea. Foreign diplomats and humanitarian workers fled in droves as the already destitute government closed its borders. During this time, the number of missile launches also remained low, with only four launches in 2020 and eight launches in 2021.

The new president of South Korea Yoon Suk-Yeol, elected in 2022, has a different view on North Korea from his predecessor. In fact, the Republic of Korea government's policy on North Korea has shifted from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other as the government has shifted from progressive to conservative. The current South Korea’s response will be further discussed in the third point.

2. Motivations Behind North Korea’s Missile Launches

A central aspect of this analysis is to delve into the motivations driving North Korea's missile launches. It is believed that North Korea launches are due to three main reasons: to test and develop its weapons technology, to send a political statement to the world (particularly the United States), and to impress its people at home and strengthen allegiance to the leadership (Jean Mackenzie, 2022). Considering the number of testing is rapidly increasing since 2022, several observers believe Kim is sending a message by purposely displaying North Korea's weaponry during a time of increased global turmoil. "They want to remind the world that they should not be ignored, that they exist, and that their engineers are working around the clock to develop both nuclear weapons and delivery systems," explained Andrei Lankov, a professor at South Korea’s Kookmin University. Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the Joint Intelligence Center of the United States Pacific Command in Hawaii, agreed. He also added that Kim "launches missiles to draw attention to himself, but also to put pressure on Japan and the US to engage him" (Jessie Yeung, Paula Hancocks and Yoonjung Seo, 2022). Furthermore he warned that North Korea may feel encouraged to act now because the West is preoccupied with the Ukraine conflict.

Some scholars, however, highlight that these reasons tend to miss the importance of the domestic situation and its relation with the increasing testing. Historically, the North Korean regime makes its most provocative foreign policy steps when it is facing very severe domestic crises. For instance, Kim Il Sung faced his most serious political threat in a decade in the late 1960s as a result of economic deterioration and tensions with his superpower allies and retaliated with a surge of military action against South Korea. Again, the North Korean economy crashed so dramatically in the mid-1990s that it caused mass famine and death, about the same time that Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung's son, was consolidating control. In response to these united challenges, the government threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and removed spent fuel rods from their primary nuclear plant in order to extract plutonium. This tactic of inciting a foreign crisis to divert domestic unhappiness is not new, but it is perhaps more ingrained in North Korean policymaking than anywhere else, as a result of the Kim regime's decades-long effort to instill a specific ideological system within its population that keeps the family in power. When a country struggles substantially at home while also being perceived as powerless internationally, the regime's raison d'être crumbles (Mitchell Lerner, 2022). As a result, the leadership has historically responded to its most serious challenges by attempting to demonstrate to its domestic audience that, in this important relationship with their greatest adversaries, the Kim family remains the North Korean people's last line of defense.

It is also often noted, and declared by North Korea itself, that their launching of multiple missiles is a reply to joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea. For instance, the North retaliated to US-South Korean military exercises this past March. The eleven-day so-called “Freedom Shield” exercise between the United States and South Korea began on March 13 and one goal was to ensure readiness to respond to North Korean nuclear and missile programs. North Korea launched two cruise missiles from a submarine for the first time the day before the exercise began. The missiles, according to North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), are "strategic" devices that illustrate how the "nuclear war deterrent" operates in "diverse spaces". North Korea launched multiple cruise missiles nine days later. Cruise missiles, unlike ballistic missiles, may be controlled in flight and travel at lower altitudes, making them more difficult to track and intercept. Eventually, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff stated that the military identified and tracked all these missiles. North Korea also tested the Hwasong-17, their largest intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as multiple short-range ballistic missiles. According to a KCNA statement, the ICBM was launched on March 16 in order to "strike fear" into North Korea's opponents. The Hwasong-17 can cover the entire continental United States.

To sum up, the factors behind North Korea’s missile tests are multiple, from maintaining a deterrent posture and showcasing military capabilities to internal political dynamics – with the crucial role of economic and technological advancements – and seeking leverage in negotiations.

3. South Korea’s Response

With the inauguration of the Yoon Suk-Yeol administration, South Korea's leadership has shifted from the progressive to the conservative wing, which also implies from an engagement policy to a pressure one. The Yoon Suk-Yeol government's North Korean policy is as follows: denuclearization first, while resolving humanitarian issues (such as that of prisoners of war, abductees in North Korea, and separated families, as well as providing protection and assistance to North Korean defectors), the US-ROK relationship strengthened, and military deterrent increased.

In response to North Korea's nuclear and missile threats, the South Korean government is working to restore a three-axis system (Kill Chain, KAMD, and KMPR). South Korea's Three-Axis system is a military system designed to track, detect, and eliminate an adversary's ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. It aims to defend its territory by developing a Kill Chain to preemptively strike the source of an attack, intercepting incoming missile strikes using the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD), and using the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) operation to eliminate the adversary's command and control by neutralizing its leadership and military facilities. Regarding the Kill Chain however, South Korea was forbidden from manufacturing rockets capable of conducting geospatial intelligence activities due to a missile restriction guideline established by the United States in 1979. Hence why its reconnaissance satellites are insufficient to detect and identify North Korea's missile attack. Therefore the country has had to rely on US intelligence capabilities to monitor North Korea's military actions. The current aerial reconnaissance of North Korea is primarily carried out by US reconnaissance planes such as the RC-135W Rivet Joint and the E-8C. The United States lifted the missile guideline put on South Korea in June 2021, allowing the country to increase its missile and space force capabilities. As a result, the South Korean government intends to launch five surveillance satellites with Space X by 2025, with the first launch scheduled for the end of 2023 (Doyeong Jung, 2023).

According to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), North Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile toward its east coast on April 13. The missile was the Hwasong-18, a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile tested by North Korea. The South Korean military downplayed the missile test, claiming that the technologies North Korea claimed to have tested are standard for manufacturing ballistic missiles. Seoul described the Hwasong-18 missile test as a mid-level stage in the construction of a solid-fuel ICBM, adding that the North would need additional time and effort to meet all conditions for the creation of a solid-fuel ICBM. Along with the devaluation, the South Korean military mitigated fears that the North may breach its three-axis system by claiming that its defense system evolved in response to the mounting threats posed by North Korea. Despite Seoul's focus on its reliable missile defense capabilities, North Korea appears to have made significant progress toward constructing a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile, which might be regarded as a direct danger to US security (Mitch Shin, 2023).

4. Regional and Global Implications

Tensions between North and South Korea naturally get a lot of attention because of the dangerous security implications. It is impossible to ignore the potential that rising tensions could lead to other powers intervening or even starting a war. The United States undoubtedly plays a significant part in such calculations given its long-standing relationship with South Korea and its leadership position in the diplomatic effort to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Given its proximity and important role as a main ally of the US in the region, Japan’s role is also worth mentioning. Finally, considering its significant influence, interests, and expanding military might on the Korean Peninsula, China merits special attention, too.

4.1 United States

On April 26, president Joe Biden and South Korean president Yoon Suk-Yeol revealed at the White House a crucial new deal aimed at deterring North Korean aggression, including a new US pledge to station a nuclear-armed submarine in South Korea for the first time since the early 1980s. According to the official statement, the US and South Korea would "strengthen our training, exercises, and simulation activities to improve the US-ROK – ROK is an acronym of the South official name: Republic of Korea – alliance's approach to deterring and defending" against North Korean threats. It also establishes the "US-ROK Nuclear Consultative Group", which will meet on a regular basis to consult on nuclear and strategic planning matters, with the intention of providing allies with "additional insight into how we think about planning for major contingencies". According to the source, the group is fashioned after the United States' participation with European allies during the height of the Cold War (Betsy Klein, Kylie Atwood and Sam Fossum, 2023).

4.2 Japan

It is believed by analysts that South Korea's recent willingness to settle historical conflicts in the name of bettering relations with Japan is mostly motivated by concerns about North Korea's rising capabilities and managing any rivalry with China. In March, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visited Tokyo for a meeting with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the first such meeting in Japan in more than a decade. "In response to North Korea's continued nuclear and missile activities", Kishida said at a joint news conference, "we confirmed the importance of strengthening the deterrence and response capabilities of the Japan-US and South Korea-US alliances, as well as vigorously promoting security cooperation among the three countries". Following an agreement during this historic summit, South Korea's Defense Ministry has begun the process of normalizing a major military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan. The South Korean Defense Ministry announced that it has issued a letter to the country's Foreign Ministry requesting measures to normalize the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). GSOMIA enables neighbors to share military intelligence directly, including information about North Korea's missile launches and nuclear weapons program. The pact, signed in November 2016, was hailed by observers as a rare example of cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul. The agreement's normalization will provide a boost to commitments to strengthen bilateral security cooperation in the face of North Korea's periodic missile tests.

4.3 China

As North Korea entered the COVID-19 epidemic at a time when its conversations with the US and South Korea had reached a stalemate, China was the only country on which it could rely upon economic help and medical assistance. Even before the outbreak, China accounted for more than 95 percent of North Korea's overall commerce. In addition, approximately 500,000 tons of crude oil are transported by pipeline each year. As North Korea strives towards self-sufficiency, China's assistance is critical. Beijing views the crisis as a strategic arena of regional rivalry with the United States. Because China and North Korea work together more closely than any other country in the area on security and economic issues, China may exploit good relations with North Korea to keep and grow its influence on the Korean Peninsula. Beijing overlooks missile launches but is vehemently opposed to nuclear tests and is keeping an eye on them. China is concerned about a "nuclear domino effect" in which North Korea's nuclear weapons ownership leads to increased popular support for nuclear weapons acquisition in South Korea, Japan, and even Taiwan. Not only that, but North Korea's nuclear test site is not far from the Chinese border, and carrying out the test might induce an earthquake in China, perhaps resulting in radiation leakage. For this reason, while considering the timing of his tests, Kim Jong-Un continues to carefully examine whether to prioritize the political and diplomatic goals of North Korea's friendship with China or North Korea's own military interests.

5. Latest activities

News on May 17 report new pictures of Kim Jong-Un with North Korea’s first spy satellite. According to experts, the spy satellite launch does not appear to be imminent, as Pyongyang may require "at least three or four weeks" for technical checks. Precision labor, such as transporting a payload to a launching pad and assembling a satellite and launch vehicle, is required to place a satellite into orbit. "At the earliest, the North may launch the satellite in early or mid-June" Hong Min, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said. Instead, according to him, "the country is more likely to calibrate the timing of the launch around Victory Day in July for its success after thorough preparations" (The Korea Times, 2023) – North Korea will commemorate "Victory Day" on July 27, the signing date of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. The war is known as the Great Fatherland Liberation War in the North –. Last year, Kim Jong-Un paid a visit to the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, the country's satellite test site on the west coast, and urged for its development and modernization in order to launch numerous rockets carrying multipurpose satellites, including a military surveillance satellite, in the future. According to 38 North, a US-based website that monitors North Korea, activity at the launch pad area of the Sohae complex has restarted after a roughly six-month pause. Materials on the launch pad have been removed in the past weeks, and a new, taller tower crane has been erected adjacent to the gantry tower. These initiatives are most likely linked to Kim Jong-Un's modernization goals of increasing space launch capabilities and supporting a new generation of bigger satellite launch vehicles (SLVs). However, substantial work remains to be done on both the launch pad and the fuel/oxidizer bunkers before a satellite launch can take place from this location (Jack Liu, Peter Makowsky and Olli Heinonen, 2023).

6. Conclusion

The missile launches by North Korea have intensified the already complex situation between South and North Korea. Understanding the dynamics of the South-North Korea relationship is crucial for policymakers, diplomats, and observers alike, as efforts to address the ongoing tensions and work towards a peaceful resolution continue to be paramount in ensuring regional stability and global security. The potential factors behind North Korea's missile tests are many, meaning an appropriate response – both from the South and the other actors such as the United States and Japan – needs a thorough analysis and can be quite difficult to obtain. Despite changes in international conditions, the North Korean situation, and the domestic political environment, North Korea policy has been caught in the framework of repeating the same blueprint. Now is the moment for North Korean strategy to explore a fresh approach: a long-term North Korea policy that ought to provide for convergent actions that strategically combine engagement and pressure. The new model should include both progressives and conservatives approaches, and it should be supported by consensus-building and governance that connects the government, political parties, and civil society.

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