Home / Opinion / Views /  Mint Explainer: The message in missile North Korea fired over Japan

North Korea has just launched a nuclear-capable missile over Japan for the first time in five years. Since the start of this year, the rogue nuclear state has unleashed a barrage of missile tests in a worrying display of its military capabilities with some believing that a nuclear test is imminent. Mint breaks down the developments in North Korea’s nuclear program:

How did North Korea acquire its weapons?

The country’s history with nuclear power goes back to the 1950’s when the Soviet Union gave North Korea nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. The country developed a weapons program in secrecy during the 1970s and 1980s despite joining international frameworks like the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Pakistan played a crucial role in this process and provided nuclear designs and technology in exchange for help with its missile program. The program came in the international spotlight after the International Atomic Energy Agency accused the country of lying to its technicians and developing plutonium for nuclear weapons. In 1994, the US intelligence agencies argued that Pyongyang had enough plutonium for a nuclear bomb. This spiralled into a series of crises that were occasionally resolved through diplomacy with parties like the United States and South Korea before North Korea resumed testing again. The country also conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 and has conducted six so far.

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What is the missile program capable of?

North Korea has acquired a devastating suite of missile capabilities. Missiles like the Hwasong-12, which was tested this week, are capable of hitting the key American Pacific base of Guam. More advanced missiles, like the Hwasong 15 and Hwasong 17, are capable of reaching all of the continental United States. Pyongyang is also developing a range of other weapons like hypersonic missiles and rail-fired missiles that are designed to defeat the US and South Korean missile defence systems. The country is also stepping up the modernisation and expansion of its nuclear capabilities and is expected to have enough nuclear material for 200 bombs by 2027, according to the RAND Corporation.

Why is North Korea testing these missiles?

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think-tank, North Korea has tested more than 30 missiles since the start of 2022. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has tested over 160 missiles since the beginning of his reign in 2011, more than five times the tests his father and grandfather conducted combined.

After the failure of his negotiations with President Trump in 2019, Kim Jong Un has undone many of the self-imposed restrictions that the country had put in place when it hoped to get a deal out of the United States. The latest missile test of a long-range missile over Japan is an example of this — North Korea had previously declared that it would not test these missiles which could threaten powers like the US. Experts speculate that North Korea is looking to modernise and boost its attack capabilities and then force America and South Korea to the negotiating table.

How have other countries responded?

The missile launch was roundly condemned by the US and its allies like South Korea and Japan. In response, Washington conducted military drills with both Seoul and Tokyo. The three countries, which form the backbone of the US-led military order in East Asia, have vowed to continue their efforts to deter North Korea’s nuclear efforts.

Although the US has attempted negotiations since the beginning of the Biden Administration, Pyongyang has rebuffed Washington’s advances.

Western analysts have pointed out that North Korea’s latest actions will erase the progress made by both sides since tensions reduced in 2017.

Will this lead to a military crisis?

Japan’s decision to build up its military and increase defence spending levels stems from the nuclear threat posed by Pyongyang. Tokyo is also seriously considering the acquisition of preventive strike capabilities which would allow it to pre-emptively attack North Korean missile sites in case of an imminent threat.

South Korea has been on an arms development spree. It became one of the few countries in the world to acquire a submarine launched ballistic missile capability. It has also backed the development of an expansive missile defence system called the Kill Chain System. This could allow Seoul to conduct devastating attacks on North Korea’s military and political leadership if it detects a threat to the country.

Elsewhere in Mint

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