January 17, 2022
SEOUL – North Korea launched two apparent short-range ballistic missiles toward the East Sea from an airfield in Pyongyang on Monday morning, in its fourth weapons test this year.
“We are aware of the ballistic missile launches and are consulting closely with our allies and partners,” a US Indo-Pacific Command spokesperson said in a statement, adding the event “does not pose an immediate threat” to US personnel or territory, or to US allies.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the military “detected two projectiles, which are presumed to be short-range ballistic missiles, being fired northeastward toward the East Sea from the Sunan airfield area in Pyongyang.”
The two suspected missiles traveled around 380 kilometers at an altitude of 42 kilometers after being fired at around 08:50 and 08:54 a.m. Monday, respectively.
The two reportedly flew at a maximum speed of around Mach 5, five times the speed of sound.
The South Korean military “maintains readiness posture in preparation for additional launches while tracking and monitoring related movements,” according to the JCS.
Test-firing aims to improve precision
Seoul assessed that Monday’s test-firing aimed to “improve the capability to fire projectiles consecutively and the precision of its missiles, setting a target in the East Sea,” a military official said on condition of anonymity.
The target is believed to be located in Al Island, an uninhabited island off the North’s east coast. The place is noteworthy as KN-23 short-range ballistic missiles launched on Friday flew 430 kilometers and hit the target in Al Island.
But the official said additional analysis is required to assess whether Monday’s launch was part of the North Korean military’s regular winter military exercise, generally held between December and March.
The South Korean military also detected a sign of North Korea preparing for additional missile launches, the official said, declining to confirm the type of the missiles launched Monday.
But the South Korean military braces for the possibility of North Korea conducting another round of test-firing its KN-23 short-range ballistic missiles.
Monday’s launch came three days after North Korea on Friday fired a pair of KN-23 SRBMs from a rail-mobile launcher in Uiju County, North Pyongan Province.
This is Pyongyang’s fourth weapons test this year. North Korea test-fired four ballistic missiles in three discrete launches, which were conducted between Jan. 5 to Jan. 14 in short intervals.
Experts point out that a series of missile test launches were carried out simultaneously for domestic and foreign policy purposes, as they came at a critical time for the Kim Jong-un regime and in a year filled with major domestic and international events, including the March 9 South Korean presidential election.
Daniel Pinkston, a lecturer in international relations with Troy University in Seoul, said Monday’s launch concurrently aims to test the reliability of the missile systems and send out political signaling directed at internal and external audiences.
“In sum, the North Korean leadership can accomplish several things with these tests. They serve multiple purposes: test new systems under development, test the reliability of deployed systems, and exercise command and control system,” Pinkston said. “And finally, there is political signaling and its multiple aspects.”
The timing of missile tests also clearly shows Pyongyang’s message directed to external audiences including South Korea, the US, and the United Nations Security Council.
The recent two weapons tests conspicuously came after North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday swiftly repudiated Washington’s sanctions designations and warned that the country would be “compelled to take a stronger and clear reaction if the US adopts such a confrontational stance at all costs” in a press statement.
The Biden administration also last week proposed the UNSC to blacklist five US-designated individuals, which requires consent by China and Russia.
“North Korea is suffering economically but its regime’s ideology demands not showing weakness. Kim’s external strategy is to get the world to accept Pyongyang as a nuclear power and pay it for abstaining from provocations,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “So this series of missile tests serves both domestic political and foreign policy purposes.”
Setting the tone
A spate of short-range missiles might also be a “scene-setter,” given that some analysts say the Kim Jong-un regime sees an urgent need to speed up weapons tests and show tangible outcomes this year.
Pyongyang enters the second year of a five-year plan to advance and variegate conventional and non-conventional weapons, which North Korean leader Kim Jong-un proposed at the Eighth Party Congress in January 2021 with the rationale of “developing national defense capabilities.”
More importantly, this year marks the 80th anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s birth in February, the 110th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung and the 90th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army in April.
North Korean state media outlets have propagated it as the “year of revolutionary, auspicious occasions.”
Against that backdrop, the recent weapons tests could be seen as Pyongyang’s move to set the tone and pave the way for more high-profile provocations this year.
“Kim Jong-un has sought to normalize short-range ballistic missile flights as a fact of life without paying any real penalties. He has effectively achieved this goal since resuming SRBM tests on May 4, 2019,” said professor Lee Sung-yoon of the Fletcher School at Tufts University in the US.
“At some point, he will move on to bigger provocations by resuming intermediate-and long-range missile tests punctuated by a nuclear test, as he did in 2017.”