North Korean Missile Tests and Northeast Asia’s Evolving Security Architecture

By | April 05, 2023 | No Comments

USAF B-52 bomber with South Korean fighter escorts, 20 December 2022, image via US Forces in Korea

The first three months of 2023 have already seen a flurry of developments in and around North Korea. Kim Jong-un has presided (in some cases directly) over tests of four intercontinental ballistic missiles already this year, and seven separate tests of short-range missiles, including launches from submarines. Such was the density of the missile launches, that, if you woke up on any given morning thus far this year in South Korea or Japan, there was about an 11% chance of a North Korean missile test occuring on that day.  

North Korean state media, of course, has its own way of justifying these actions, and using them to bolster the image of its leadership and even anchor a new point of succession.

Mainly however, the North Korean media places primary emphasis on US-South Korean military drills — by which they seem to mean not just the eleven days of “Freedom Shield” joint excercises which commenced on March 13. Among points of concern for the North Korean leadership were “extended deterrence” exercises and deployment of B-52 bombers to Korea in late December 2022, the visit of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Seoul in January and the announcement of more tabletop exercises in February. The B-52s again made an appearance over South Korea on March 6, 2023. 

Secretary Austin’s statement that “trilateral cooperation with Japan enhances all of our security” was not simply about deploying US assets from Japan. Andrew Yeo covers the range of new cooperation between South Korea in Japan around President Yoon’s visit to Tokyo in mid-March. American think tanks have nary a negative word to say about this emerging cooperation, as it represents a doorway that US policy makers and Congressional staffers have been pushing on for some time.   

Jesse Johnson of the Japan Times described renewed momentum toward normalizing the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), describing how one of Kim Jong-un’s missile tests threatened Hokkaido just a few hours before the Japan-ROK summit.

Between the war in Ukraine, Chinese assertiveness and Kim Jong-un’s missile spree, there appears to be little domestic pushback to Japan’s proposed 26% hike in defense expenditures, with the main  obstacle to implementation being procedural fiscal differences within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party rather than a unified opposition to the increase itself. An excellent report from Xiao Zhang and Nan Tian at SIPRI places the recent committments within the context of budgetary rises and changing definitions of national defense since 2017, effectively reminding us that the legacies of Abe Shinzo remain highly relevant. 

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida in November 2021, via Kyodo News.

Kishida’s visit to Kyiv  in March emphasised his Party’s proactive stance on the conflict with Russia and placed Japan well ahead of the more reticent stance of South Korea on this issue. Seoul’s reluctance to take more public actions in support of Ukraine has been covered extensively, and appropriately caveated, by Anthony Rinna here at Sino-NK and for his recent writing for National Bureau of Asian Research.  

Finally, amidst the shifting architecture and ongoing missile sprees, it may bear recalling that Ankit Panda, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, has produced a book worth consulting when it comes to North Korean missile capabilities and ambitions. Of particular interest is Panda’s discussion of submarine capabilities, given that underwater emphasis in Kim Jong-un’s personally supervised short-range missile tests in March, and in this week’s remarkable new trilateral US-ROK-Japan joint excercises in submarine detection and deterrance. 

In addition to its salience as background to the events of this spring, Panda’s book ultimately reminds us of the seriousness of the problem of nuclear war in Northeast Asia, or a global nuclear conflict that begins in Northeast Asia. 

Kim Jong Un and the Bomb is an engaging and comprehensive brief on North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, and it represents an important update to the literature. Panda’s book provides heft to the individual role of Kim Jong-un as explored in biographies by Anna Fifield and Jung Pak, and shows potential to speak to scholars of authoritarianism or state legitimacy in North Korea. Readers will occasionally need to work through a thicket of acronyms and missile design titles (summarized in a tidy five-page appendix), but this book is far more than just the prose equivalent of a high-grade satellite photograph. The writing walks a line between wonky and colloquial, with approachable asides like “it is far easier to send things into space—whether nuclear missiles or humans—than to safely return them” (219). In some cases it might be profitably paired in the classroom with The 2020 Commission, Jeffrey Lewis’ ironic and counterfactual exploration of the strategic and human consequences that a “limited” nuclear war with North Korea would actually entail.

Citation: Adam Cathcart, ‘Review of ‘Kim Jong Un and the Bomb: Survival and Deterrence in North Korea’ by Ankit Panda‘, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 94, No. 4, 754-756. 

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