Ballistic missile launches from Pyongyang have raised new concerns among Western officials of a new nuclear weapons test – and an escalation toward war.
North and South Korea exchanged a barrage of indirect missile fire late Tuesday in one of the most significant acts of aggression by Pyongyang since the division of the peninsula in 1948.
Kim Jong Un’s North Korean forces fired at least 17 ballistic missiles and 100 artillery shells into the waterways east and west of South Korea – a record number in itself. One crossed the sea border between the two nations, the first time a missile has landed that far south since before the Korean War.
Seoul responded by firing missiles into the buffer zone at sea.
The latest violence follows a steady increase in missile tests from the North in recent weeks prompting rising concern in the U.S. that the military action will precede a nuclear test – the last of which took place in 2017 amid then-President Donald Trump’s attempts to broker a peace with the north.
Pyongyang has justified the latest tests as a response to the resumption of military exercises between South Korea and U.S. forces, which Trump unilaterally suspended as unnecessary “war games,” borrowing a North Korean term. But analysts also believe other global circumstances have created an ideal time for the north to push development of its strategic weapons.
“This North Korean buildup is occurring in an international climate that is favorable for North Korea,” Sue Mi Terry with the Wilson Center wrote in an article published in Foreign Affairs. “Washington’s mounting animosity with both China and Russia means that those countries are less likely than ever to cooperate with the United States and its allies in strengthening sanctions on North Korea.”
Indeed, the White House confirmed later on Wednesday that North Korea had covertly shipped ammunition to Russia to help make up for shortfalls in its stockpiles from its ongoing war in Ukraine.
Others expressed pessimism at any attempt to slow the current ramp-up toward war.
“Both sides trying to signal they won’t be intimidated by the other by upping the ante. We’re seeing what ‘power for power’ looks like,” Jenny Town, a Korea specialist at the Stimson Center think tank, wrote on Twitter. “But are egos too high now to take steps to deescalate? Do we need some mediation?”
Pak Jong Chon, a spokesman for the North Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee, issued a fiery statement early Wednesday blasting the ongoing military exercises as an “excessive military confrontation of the hostile forces.” He also drew a comparison between the exercises, dubbed “Vigilant Storm” and involving almost all branches of the U.S. military, and the similarly named “Desert Storm” military operation in the early 1990s that involved the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq.
“It is a very ominous omen,” he said in the statement translated by KCNAWatch.org, adding, “We can no longer pardon their military recklessness and provocation.”
Western officials have raised increased alarm in recent days that the weeks-long escalation in missile tests also serves as a pretext for a nuclear weapons test by the north. International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi said last week that a new nuclear weapons test “would be yet another confirmation of a program which is moving full steam ahead, in a way that is incredibly, incredibly concerning,” and indicative of further expansion of North Korea’s arsenal.
The White House warned on Tuesday that a nuclear weapons test could come “at any time.”
“It’s difficult to predict with any degree of certainty what the triggering event might be for Kim Jong Un to conduct any number of provocations that he has in recent weeks or he might in future weeks,” John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters. “So I would say, in general, our concern remains high – and consistently so – about the potential for a nuclear test.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin plans to meet with his South Korean counterpart at the Pentagon on Thursday.