SEOUL — North Korea’s 2023 is already looking like a rerun of 2022, as Pyongyang test-fired missiles on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day and vowed to increase its nuclear arsenal.
According to North Korean media monitored by agencies in Seoul, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un told a meeting of his ruling Workers’ Party of the need for an “exponential” increase in atomic arms, as well as a new intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. After a string of weapons tests in 2022, U.S. and South Korean officials are bracing for what they fear will be the North’s first nuclear weapons test in six years.
Separately, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said North Korea test-fired one ballistic missile on Sunday after launching three on Saturday. It was not clear whether those projectiles were fired from a new, nuclear-capable 600 mm multiple-launch rocket system referred to by Pyongyang’s state media.
In his remarks to top security officials late last week, Mr. Kim demanded “redoubled efforts to overwhelmingly beef up the military muscle.” He called the U.S. a “hostile force” and South Korea an “undoubted enemy.” He spoke of “the necessity of mass-producing tactical nuclear weapons” and “an exponential increase of the country’s nuclear arsenal.”
“Our nuclear force considers it as the first mission to deter war and safeguard peace and stability and, however, if it fails to deter, it will carry out the second mission, which will not be for defense,” he said, according to the South Korean reports.
The mission of the new ICBM is a “quick nuclear counterstrike.” North Korea first tested an ICBM with the range to hit the U.S. mainland in 2017, setting off a fierce standoff with the Trump administration.
Mr. Kim, who skipped the traditional New Year’s Day public address for the fourth consecutive year, also demanded a spy satellite.
In a statement, Seoul’s Unification Ministry slammed the North’s “obsession” with weapons of mass destruction, which it said came at the expense of the welfare of ordinary North Koreans.
Mr. Kim is not alone in boosting his forces. Northeast Asia is engaged in an accelerating arms race, with U.S. allies and adversaries bulking up to unprecedented levels.
China is adding capabilities in all military domains while militarizing South China Sea reefs and islets. Taiwan last week announced that it was extending conscription times for military recruits and was set to receive $10 billion under a military aid package just approved in Washington.
The government of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has vowed to double its defense budget by 2028. On Dec. 16, it revealed plans to acquire a cruise missile “counterstrike” capability — the latest dramatic shift away from its constitutionally mandated pacifist defense policy.
Last week, South Korea’s military asked for a more than 6% increase in its defense budget for the next five years and tested a solid-propellant satellite launch vehicle.
Mr. Kim accused Seoul of being “hell-bent on an imprudent and dangerous arms buildup.” Even so, 2022 stood out as his busiest year of missile tests ever.
North Korea launched some 70 ballistic missiles of various types into its skies and off its coasts and test-fired cruise missiles and tactical multiple-launch rocket systems. Pyongyang also claims to have tested a hypersonic missile with a variable glide path and a satellite launch vehicle. It tested unconventional, survivable systems, such as a missile fired from beneath the surface of a lake and another fired from the flatbed of a train.
U.N. Security Council resolutions ban North Korea from testing ballistic missiles, but Pyongyang routinely ignores the ban. Now, diplomatic pressures on Pyongyang may be easing.
Russia and China, which backed prior resolutions against Pyongyang’s weapons programs, blocked Biden administration efforts in 2022 for further action at the United Nations.
Analysts say Pyongyang has compelling reasons to maintain a high testing tempo.
It needs to credibly test missile technologies and to show off its deterrent to potential enemies. It also uses missile tests as a counter to U.S.-South Korean drills and to South Korean arms developments. Moreover, changes to the North’s strategic doctrine announced in 2022 – under which missile units would independently initiate launches if the Kim regime’s leadership is taken out — calls for new weapons systems, which must be stress-tested.
North Korea defied widespread predictions and did not conduct a nuclear test in 2022. Many analysts say Beijing, spooked by Moscow’s war in Ukraine and loath to give the U.S. a reason to deploy more assets to the Indo-Pacific, might have warned Mr. Kim against the move.
The North recently opened another front in the peninsula’s war of nerves.
On Dec. 26, five North Korean drones crossed the DMZ — the first such intrusion since 2017 — and South Korean air defenses failed to down the drones. In response, President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered the South Korean military to deploy two or three drones into the North for every drone that the North sends to the South.
Even so, the vulnerability lies in the South, where the drone incursions would prove far more disruptive than in the isolated North.
As well as loitering over Seoul, the North’s drones last week briefly halted air traffic at Seoul’s two airports. While Pyongyang’s Sunan airport has virtually no traffic, Gimpo and Incheon International are busy regional and global flight hubs.