North Korean missile tests in East Asia

North Korean missile tests
A North Korean Wanshan WS51200 TEL truck seen in the Victory Day 2013 parade; via under Attribution 2.0 Generic license


Missiles tests conducted by North Korea, since 1984 with the first launching of a Scud-B missile [source], was meant to show so-called sophistication over the years. A number of these missile tests took place in the Sea of Japan, which was said to be a political gesture aimed at the country [source]. Japan, South Korea, the US, China and Russia have expressed concern about the missile tests as they can escalate a situation if a North Korean missile was used in a future conflict to take out American/South Korean/Japanese government and military facilities.

As of 2021, North Korea has carried out 160 missile tests [source]. Around six of the missiles tested flew over the Japanese archipelago. But Pyongyang has denied some of the missile tests reported and insist that the missiles were only done to bring satellites under the Kwangmyŏngsŏng program into space.

North Korean missile tests
Operational ranges of North Korean missiles in operational use or in development.

Key Judgment 1

North Korea is highly likely to continue conducting missile tests as a show of force against the rest of the world in the next 12 months

  • Over the years, North Korea has sought to improve the technology and capability of its missile forces in order to be used as a means of deterrence against all forms of external aggression.

  • As of January 2022, North Korea has fired a total of four ballistic missiles in various tests. North Korean state media reported the missiles as hypersonic-type missiles [source]. This shows Kim Jong-un’s defiance despite the presence of sanctions and difficulties in keeping the country protected from COVID-19.

  • The ballistic missile testing conducted in January 2022 is a symbol of advances in its missile program [source], especially since the first missile test was done in 1984. A ballistic misssile, if equipped with a nuclear warhead, would still be a threat to Japan and South Korea. In addition, this would give leverage over other nations that are willing to negotiate for North Korea to stop conducting missile tests.

Key Judgement 2

Sanctions are almost certain to continue or even scaled up to hamper North Korea’s efforts to construct and conduct further ballistic missile testing in the next 12 months

  • Sanctions have been placed on North Korea to prevent the import and export of goods that can be used to prop up or equip the government and the military. The sanctions expanded on financial transactions.

  • On January 12, 2022, Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced sanctions placed on five North Korean officials responsible for procuring goods for North Korean’s ballistic and WMD programs [source]. The US State Department later announced sanctions placed on a North Korean man, a Russian man and company for supporting North Korean ballistic missile programs [source].

Key Judgement 3

China and Russia are highly likely to use their standing in the United Nations Security Council to block condemnation against North Korea in the next 12 months

  • China and Russia are two of North Korea’s key economic partners in East Asia. They also have official diplomatic and military ties, going back to the end of Japanese occupation and the deployment of Chinese and Soviet forces against United Nations-backed military forces in the Korean War.

  • A draft resolution in the UN from November 2021 was circulated by China and North Korea, calling for an end to most sanctions. These include a ban on exports of seafood and textiles, a cap on imports of refined petroleum products and a prohibition on its citizens working overseas and remit their earnings to North Korea [source]. The sanction lifting was proposed to apply for humanitarian activities and for projects meant to connect North and South Korea by road and rail [source]. The resolution explains that economic difficulties are a burden and that sanctions should be removed to improve the lives of the North Korean populace.

  • Even though China and Russia have supported sanctions on North Korea before, it’s unknown if they are willing to back additional sanctions due to the recent ballistic missile tests.

Key Judgment 4

North Korea is almost certain to find ways to get around the sanctions placed on the country for conducting ballistic missile testing in the next 12 months

  • North Korea has developed a sophisticated network of smuggling in needed items in order to get pass sanctions. A United Nations Panel of Experts report in 2019 mentions that North Korea uses fake documentation and secret ship-to-ship transfers of cargo from international waters.

  • According to academic John Delury, sanctions on North Korea are not working since they are counterproductive [source]. He also said that getting China to persuade North Korea to stop their activities do not work since they don’t have a major influence in North Korean foreign policy since 1958 [source].
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