EXPLANATORY: What North Korea expects from recent weapons tests

SEOUL, South Korea — The recent explosion of a test missile in North Korea is unlikely to stop leader Kim Jong Un from pursuing big plans this year to bolster a nuclear arsenal he hopes will , will challenge its rival, the United States.

Kim, in fact, could use it as a springboard to his first test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in years — and the North’s biggest weapon — as diplomacy with Washington remains stalled.

It’s unclear what went wrong with Wednesday’s launch or how soon North Korea will conduct another test.

What many observers agree on is the North’s next goal: a space launch for a spy satellite that simultaneously tests technology for an ICBM that could precisely target the entire continental United States, possibly with multiple nuclear warheads. .

A success would allow Kim to add major new weapons systems to his arsenal, bolster public support at home and increase his leverage in future negotiations with an increasingly war-distracted Biden administration. in Ukraine and other major problems.

Here’s a look at what North Korea could do in one of its most intense weapons tests in years.

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A MONSTER ICBM

Days before North Korea’s failed launch on Wednesday, Pyongyang fired two medium-range ballistic missiles it said were designed to test the cameras of a reconnaissance satellite. However, US and South Korean officials said the launches were intended to test a new ICBM system first shown at a North Korean military parade in 2020.

This weapon is the 25-meter (82-foot) Hwasong-17 developmental missile, the North’s longest-range weapon and, by some estimates, the largest road-mobile ballistic missile system in the world. Its maximum potential range of 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles) puts all of the continental United States within striking range.

North Korea has other ICBMs, and its flight tests in 2017 demonstrated an ability to reach the American homeland. But experts say the size of the Hwasong-17 suggests it can carry a larger payload or multiple nuclear warheads capable of defeating missile defense systems.

“Putting three warheads on them would allow them to drop one bomb on Washington, DC, a second on New York and a third on Chicago,” said Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University in South Korea.

During the ballistic missile launches on February 27 and March 5, experts say North Korea likely tested the Hwasong-17’s first-stage rocket. South Korean military officials have suggested Wednesday’s launch also involved parts of the Hwasong-17.

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A SPY SATELLITE

Last year, Kim publicly promised to acquire a spy satellite, as well as a missile that can carry multiple warheads and can accurately attack targets 15,000 kilometers away.

North Korea has already put two Earth observation satellites into orbit. But the launches were primarily aimed at improving its long-range missile technology, and there is no evidence that the satellites ever relayed space images to the North.

“North Korea’s missile effectiveness will be low without a reconnaissance satellite,” Chang said. “They can only (accurately) hit targets if they have accurate information about them.”

Before a spy satellite is launched, Pyongyang will likely inform international aviation and maritime authorities of a launch window, which it has done in its previous satellite launches, said Lee Choon Geun, honorary research fellow at Science and Technology Policy Institute of South Korea.

The United States and its allies are certain to condemn such a launch as a cover for a missile test. But they will likely fail to get new UN sanctions on North Korea because China and Russia, two vetoing UN Security Council members and friends of the North, will oppose them. .

Chang said North Korea probably hasn’t acquired a high-level spy satellite due to UN sanctions that prohibit importing the necessary materials, but it can still use existing technology and perform a launch if it opts for a more political message towards the United States. States.

A launch could take place before April 15, the birth anniversary of Kim’s late grandfather and state founder, Kim Il Sung, or the May 10 inauguration of a new conservative South Korean president.

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WHAT KIM WANTS

Wednesday’s launch was the North’s 10th weapons test this year. The high number demonstrates Kim’s determination to cement the North’s nuclear power status and wrest concessions from Washington in a position of strength, said Park Won Gon, professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. .

“North Korea is focusing everything on this goal because its possibility of achieving it has never been higher,” Park said.

Washington’s preoccupation with the Russia-Ukraine war and its growing competition with Beijing could lead the North to believe it could get away with more provocative weapons displays, such as a resumption of long-range missile testing.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine probably does not offer direct lessons to Pyongyang about the risks of denuclearization. This is because Ukraine never had operational control of the nuclear weapons it transferred to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Son Hyo-jong, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis in Seoul, recently wrote that North Korea might understand that Russia would never have attacked Ukraine if it hadn’t nuclear weapons and ICBMs to prevent the United States from interfering. This could give Kim yet another reason to pursue nuclear arsenals as a way to stand up to the United States.

North Korea’s recent testing activity is part of Kim’s effort to advance and modernize his country’s nuclear and missile arsenal to deal with what he calls U.S. hostility.

Since taking power in late 2011, Kim has conducted more than 70 rounds of ballistic missile tests, compared to 22 during his father Kim Jong Il’s 17-year rule and nine during Kim’s 46-year rule. Kim Il Sung.

“Kim Jong Un said he made his country into a military power…and that’s something his father and grandfather didn’t realize,” analyst Seo Yu said. -Seok from the Seoul-based Institute for North Korean Studies. “Now it seems impossible to revive his economy, so he may think it better to further strengthen his military credentials.”

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