North Korea conducted its second ballistic missile launch of the new year on Tuesday, testing a suspected “hypersonic” missile that sparked concerns in Washington that the regime in Pyongyang is increasing the pace of its provocations in hopes of pressuring the Biden administration into making concessions.
While the missile flew about 435 miles before crashing into the sea, it traveled at roughly 10 times the speed of sound. U.S. authorities took the unusual step of halting operations and takeoffs and landings at airports along the West Coast during the moments after the launch was detected.
Officials said commercial flights were briefly halted out of an abundance of caution, although they would not specify which airports were affected or say explicitly what triggered the move. The Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command said only that the launch did not pose an “immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un personally witnessed the test. It was the first time the dictator officially attended a test firing in nearly a year.
The state-controlled KCNA news agency reported that Mr. Kim congratulated North Korea’s missile program scientists and urged them to “further accelerate the efforts to steadily build up the country’s strategic military muscle both in quality and quantity and further modernize the army.”
David Maxwell, a retired Special Forces colonel focused on North Korea at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the airport grounding order was either a mistake or an overreaction. “It certainly was not necessary, but it likely pleased Kim Jong-un because his actions had some effect,” Mr. Maxwell told The Washington Times.
He said there could be a range of motivations behind the Kim regime’s decision to carry out the launch. “The first reason could simply be to test to advance the missile program. It may not be meant as a message at all. They must test their systems to continue to develop them,” Mr. Maxwell said.
At the same time, he said, Pyongyang could be trying to continue its strategy of “blackmail diplomacy,” under which the regime seeks to pressure South Korea, the U.S. and the international community to “make concessions to halt provocations and to bring the regime to the negotiating table.”
The Biden administration and South Korean officials have appealed to North Korea for months to reengage in diplomatic talks, which have gone nowhere for more than two years. President Trump had high-stakes summits with Mr. Kim in 2018 and 2019.
The launch Tuesday was the second for Pyongyang in a week, both on the heels of public assertions by Mr. Kim that North Korea must expand its nuclear weapons program in defiance of international opposition. The Kim regime has spent decades ignoring U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at halting Pyongyang’s nuclear program and development of ballistic missiles.
The North’s nuclear and ballistic capabilities remain as opaque as ever. The Pentagon has said it was assessing the Kim regime’s claims that it test-fired a hypersonic missile on Wednesday. If true, it would amount to a significant escalation of tensions between Pyongyang and South Korea, a close U.S. ally and home to some 30,000 American military personnel.
“It obviously takes us in the wrong direction,” Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland told reporters at the State Department. “As you know, the United States has been saying since this administration came in that we are open to dialogue with North Korea, that we are open to talking about COVID and humanitarian support, and instead they’re firing off missiles.”
Hard to defend
Hypersonic weapons, which fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, pose a crucial challenge to missile defense systems because of their speed and ability to maneuver on the way to their target. Such weapons were on a wish list of sophisticated military assets Mr. Kim unveiled last year along with multiwarhead missiles, spy satellites, solid-fuel long-range missiles and submarine-launched nuclear missiles.
The North Korean tests “continue to be in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions,” chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “We certainly call on [North Korea] to abide by those obligations and those responsibilities and look for ways to de-escalate.”
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff office said it detected Tuesday’s launch from an “inland area” into the divided Korean Peninsula’s East Sea. The official said Seoul “strongly demands the North stop its programs immediately.”
South Korea’s presidential office said the launch was discussed at an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, whose members have urged North Korea to return to talks. President Moon Jae-in expressed concern that Pyongyang was dialing up its testing activity ahead of the South’s presidential elections in March.
Mr. Maxwell said it is impossible to know for sure why Mr. Kim ordered the latest round of tests.
“There are three things we should keep in mind,” he told The Times in an email exchange. “(1) Kim Jong-un continues to demonstrate his hostile policy toward [South Korea] and the U.S.; (2) [Mr. Kim] continues to develop capabilities that appear to be for war fighting as well as messaging; (3) there has been no change to [Mr. Kim’s] political warfare strategy and blackmail diplomacy which seeks to use increased tension, threats and provocations to gain political and economic concessions.”
Some think Mr. Kim may be accelerating the pace and scope of his provocations as North Korea’s economy faces another difficult year.
While the regime has carried out dozens of short-range missile tests over the past two years, it has not tested a nuclear weapon or a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile since the 2018 summit with Mr. Trump in Singapore. At that meeting, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim discussed the prospect of major U.S. sanctions relief for North Korea if the regime abandoned its nuclear weapons.
Such disagreements over who goes first and how to sequence the concessions on both sides led to a breakdown in direct diplomacy after the failed second summit in Hanoi in 2019.
Mr. Kim “closed out both 2021 and a five-day meeting of the Korean Workers Party with a speech that … offered no hint of diplomatic outreach or moderating North Korea’s ongoing arms buildup,” said former CIA Korea deputy division chief Bruce Klingner, now with The Heritage Foundation.
“In the first year of each of the three previous U.S. administrations, conducted a nuclear or long-range missile test,” Mr. Klingner wrote in an analysis published by the foundation last week. “The lack of such provocation during the first year of the Biden administration was therefore uncharacteristic. However, North Korea continued short- and medium-range missile testing in 2021 and could eventually choose to test the new long-range missile systems it paraded publicly in 2020 and 2021.”
The Associated Press reported that several major U.S. airports received a surprise order to briefly freeze ground operations and delay takeoffs and landings just minutes after the North Korean launch was detected.
Among the sites receiving the “ground stop” order were airports in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego.
The Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged that it halted traffic for less than 15 minutes at “some airports along the West Coast on Monday evening” as a “matter of precaution,” according to a report by Politico, which said the agency did not explicitly tie the decision to North Korea’s missile launch.
Politico cited the agency as saying it “regularly takes precautionary measures.” The news outlet quoted a U.S. official with knowledge of the situation as saying on the condition of anonymity that the FAA may have acted out of precaution before a final determination by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) that the missile launch did not threaten the continental U.S.