North Korea’s spring has started with a bang. The United States and South Korea have staged their largest joint military exercises in five years, and Pyongyang’s rhetoric is becoming more aggressive. Kim Jong Un has warned that the US and South Korea would ‘plunge into despair’ for holding the drills, as he fired two missiles into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.
Kim’s regime has already fired more than 20 missiles this year, launching increasingly ambitious and sophisticated ballistic and cruise missiles. Earlier this week, North Korean state media proudly claimed that the regime had developed tactical nuclear weapons for the first time. Photographs showed Kim inspecting what looked like miniaturised nuclear warheads that could fit onto short-range ballistic missiles. They could target South Korea and help the North to ‘defend the eternal security of the state’, the regime said. Last week too, state media claimed that the DPRK had developed an ‘underwater nuclear attack drone’ that could unleash a ‘radioactive tsunami’ on the United States.
All of this is part of Kim’s plan to modernise and expand Pyongyang’s military arsenal, as he said he would do at the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in January 2021. This time last year, the regime unveiled the Hwasong-17, the world’s largest, liquid-fuelled, road-mobile ICBM. State media released a video of Kim, clad in a leather jacket and dark sunglasses, walking in slow motion as the Hwasong-17 emerged into view. We are not even close to seeing the range of nuclear and conventional weaponry that Kim has on his shopping list.
The development to look out for is North Korea’s seventh nuclear test. The last test was in September 2017, during that strange war of words between Kim and Donald Trump. The name-calling gave way to an unprecedented presidential summit, and then relations between the US and the DKPK broke down at the end of 2019. Pyongyang soon reverted to old habits, testing a submarine-launched ballistic missile in October that year.
The eternal question for North Korea watchers is whether to believe what the regime says. Does it have the weapons it says it does? For now, there is reason to be sceptical of at least Pyongyang’s latest claim to have test an ‘underwater nuclear attack drone’. If the device had really been tested multiple times, as state media purported, there’s nothing to show for it. The photographs in North Korean newspapers this week were simply displayed untested weapons. There’s no sign, either, that North Korean engineering is good enough – as of yet – to manufacture one of these terrifying-sounding underwater devices.
Despite these developments, it’s telling that South Korea’s Defence Minister recently concluded that the North had made ‘substantial progress’ in developing tactical nuclear weapons. Kim’s attention is focused on fulfilling his ambition for North Korea to be recognised as a significant nuclear-armed state, with weapons that can be used as coercive leverage to extract benefits from the international community. So for all the uncertainty, it’s clear that there will be no dialogue with the United States – at least for now. Earlier this week, North Korean newspaper Minju Joson, reported Kim saying that when the regime is finally ‘prepared to use nuclear weapons anytime and anywhere…nuclear weapons would not be used forever.’
No one knows when we will see a seventh nuclear test, but it is looking increasingly likely that it will be soon. Until then, there will be more violent words and terrifying pictures. Spring in Pyongyang started with a bang, and it might end with one too.
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Also by Edward Howell
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