28th May 2024 – (Seoul) The recent explosion of a North Korean rocket carrying a reconnaissance satellite has added to the growing concerns about the regime’s military ambitions and its potential readiness for war. The failed launch, which occurred yesterday, was the latest in a series of provocative actions by Pyongyang, including an increased frequency of missile tests and increasingly aggressive rhetoric towards South Korea. The satellite, dubbed “Malligyong-1-1,” was reportedly intended to monitor military activities in South Korea and Japan, further escalating tensions in the region.

Since the beginning of the year, North Korea has conducted a series of missile launches, including tests of the new solid-propellant Hwasong-16 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) and the “Haeil-5-23” theater-range unmanned underwater vehicle designed to carry a nuclear warhead. However, the bulk of the regime’s missile activities have involved land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) and the KN-25 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM).

The unveiling of new LACM variants, such as the Hwasal-1 with a “super-large” conventional warhead and the submarine-launched “Pulhwasal-3-31,” underscores the importance of these low-flying, maneuverable missiles in supplementing North Korea’s larger force of ballistic missiles. The deployment of LACMs on road-mobile launchers, submarines, and surface warships adds to the survivability and flexibility of the North’s missile force, further complicating Allied air and missile defense efforts.

Perhaps even more concerning is the emphasis on the nuclear role of the KN-25 SRBM. In March and April, North Korea conducted drills simulating nuclear counterattacks using the KN-25, with Kim Jong Un personally overseeing the exercises. These drills not only demonstrate the dual-capable nature of the KN-25 but also highlight the regime’s focus on “tactical nukes” as a means of deterrence and propaganda.

By brandishing its tactical nuclear capabilities, North Korea seeks to underscore South Korea’s vulnerability, drive wedges between Seoul and Washington, and erode confidence in the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence. The regime’s emphasis on centralised control over these weapons, even when field-deployed, further adds to the credibility of its nuclear threats.

The timing of North Korea’s increased missile testing is particularly significant, as it coincides with the regime’s “fundamental turnabout” in its attitude towards South Korea. No longer pursuing the goal of peaceful reunification, Pyongyang now designates Seoul as its “most dangerous and first enemy state” and “invariable archenemy.”

This dramatic shift in policy, coupled with Kim Jong Un’s assertions that North Korea would “completely occupy, subjugate, and reclaim” South Korea in the event of war, has raised concerns that the regime may be laying the groundwork for a future conflict. While Kim has claimed that this new stance is not a prelude to a preemptive attack, his words have done little to assuage fears in the region.

The prospect of a second Korean War is a terrifying one, given the devastating consequences it would entail. With Seoul, a city of over 10 million people, within range of North Korea’s artillery and short-range missiles, even a limited conflict could result in catastrophic loss of life and economic damage.

Moreover, the potential involvement of nuclear weapons in such a conflict raises the stakes to an almost unimaginable level. While North Korea’s nuclear capabilities remain shrouded in secrecy, there is little doubt that the regime possesses a number of warheads and the means to deliver them. The use of even a single nuclear weapon on the Korean Peninsula would be a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe of unparalleled proportions.

In the face of these dire scenarios, it is imperative that the international community redouble its efforts to prevent a second Korean War. This will require a multi-faceted approach, combining diplomatic engagement, economic pressure, and military deterrence.

First and foremost, the United States and its allies must maintain a robust military presence in the region, demonstrating their readiness to respond decisively to any North Korean aggression. Joint exercises and the deployment of advanced missile defense systems can help to deter Pyongyang and reassure Seoul of the continued validity of U.S. security guarantees.

At the same time, diplomatic channels must remain open, even in the face of North Korea’s provocations. While the prospects for meaningful dialogue may seem slim, history has shown that engagement can help to reduce tensions and prevent miscalculation. The international community should also continue to apply targeted economic sanctions, cutting off the regime’s access to the resources it needs to fund its nuclear and missile programs.

Ultimately, however, the key to preventing war on the Korean Peninsula lies in the hands of Kim Jong Un himself. As the supreme leader of North Korea, he has the power to choose a path of peace and reconciliation, rather than one of confrontation and conflict. It is up to the international community to make clear that the costs of aggression far outweigh any potential benefits, while also offering a viable path towards a more stable and prosperous future for the North Korean people.

Global attention is increasingly focused on North Korea’s missile tests and satellite launch attempts, which are being viewed with mounting concern. The situation on the Korean Peninsula has escalated to a critical point. The rising frequency and sophistication of these tests, along with Kim Jong Un’s aggressive rhetoric, indicate that the regime could be edging toward a perilous misjudgment.

The CNS North Korea Missile Test Database. Source: NTI
Source: NTI