North Korea launched its most powerful missile since 2017 on Sunday, according to Seoul, which estimates that Pyongyang could soon carry out its threat to resume its nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
This weapons test is the seventh conducted by the Pyongyang regime since the beginning of the year.
The last time North Korea fired so many shots in such a short time was in 2019, after negotiations between its leader Kim Jong Un and then-US President Donald Trump broke down.
South Korea said on Sunday that the North was following “a similar path” to that of 2017, when tensions were at their height on the Korean peninsula.
Pyongyang “is close to breaking the self-imposed moratorium” on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile testing, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in a statement.
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said it had “detected an intermediate-range ballistic missile fired at a high angle to the east” at dawn on Sunday. Firing at a high angle means that the missile does not reach its maximum range.
The missile was fired from the northern province of Jagang, from where North Korea has launched what it claims are hypersonic missiles from in recent months.
It reached a maximum altitude of 2,000 km and traveled about 800 km in 30 minutes before falling into the Sea of Japan, the staff said.
Japan also considered it to be a medium or long range missile. Tokyo “strongly protested against North Korea”, accusing it of “threatening the peace and security of Japan” with these tests, said Japanese government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno.
The last such missile to be tested by Pyongyang was the Hwasong-12, which had traveled 787 km and reached a maximum altitude of 2,111 km in 2017.
At the time, analysts had calculated that this projectile had the capacity to travel 4,500 km, and therefore to reach the island of Guam, an American territory in the Pacific Ocean.
– Threat of nuclear tests –
The North Korean regime threatened on January 20 to resume its nuclear or missile tests, saying it was forced to do so by the “hostile” policy of the United States towards it.
Since the inauguration of President Joe Biden in January 2021, Pyongyang has rejected the various dialogue proposals made by Washington. And Kim Jong Un reaffirmed in December that his priority was to modernize the country’s arsenal.
On Friday, the North Korean agency KCNA published images of Mr. Kim visiting an arms factory. In one of these photos, we see him beaming, wearing his usual belted black leather coat, surrounded by uniformed officials, whose faces are blurred.
According to Soo Kim, an analyst at RAND Corporation, North Korea has bided its time and is now “gradually accelerating” its weapons testing.
“Kim restrained her appetite for testing and provocation,” she explains. “Now the time has come, and the repeated missile strikes add another problem to an already hefty list of international challenges for Washington.”
These North Korean trials come at a delicate time for the region: China, the only major ally of the North Korean regime, is hosting the Winter Olympics in February and South Korea is holding a presidential election in March.
Pyongyang is preparing to celebrate the 80th birthday of Kim’s father, the late Kim Jong Il, in February and then the 110th birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the country’s founding leader, in April.
The multiplication of weapons tests also comes at a time when the North Korean economy is brought to its knees by international sanctions and by almost two years of border closures in the name of the fight against Covid-19.
“Kim’s regime listens to what is being said on the outside about its internal weakness,” said Leif Easley, a professor at Ewha University. “So he wants to remind Washington and Seoul that any attempt to overthrow him would be far too costly.”