North Korea flexes its muscles again - GulfToday

North Korea flexes its muscles again


People walk past a television screen broadcasting launch of a missile at an unknown location in North Korea. File/Reuters

North Korea has fired its most powerful missile since 2017, marking a month-long blitz of launches that has raised the spectre of leader Kim Jong Un restarting nuclear tests. He wants to catapult his nuclear ambitions to centre stage.

Pyongyang conducted a record seven weapons tests in January, the most ever in a calendar month. The move comes as it threatens to abandon a self-imposed moratorium on launching long-range and nuclear weapons, pinning the blame on US “hostile” policy for forcing its hand.

In an apparent targeting of US President Joe Biden over crippling sanctions against his country, North Korea on Thursday fired two suspected ballistic missiles into the sea.

At a time when the Biden administration is preoccupied with war clouds over Ukraine, Pyongyang’s move could add to the tension.

The nation had test-fired a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile, last launched in 2017, which is powerful enough to put the US territory of Guam in range.

South Korea and the United States responded to the launch with concerns that long-range missiles and nuclear tests could be next on Kim’s agenda.

Pyongyang has “come close to destroying the moratorium declaration,” South Korean President Moon Jae-In said after an emergency National Security Council meeting on Sunday.

The test was conducted in a manner that ensured the “security of neighbouring countries,” KCNA added.

State media released images purportedly taken by a warhead-mounted camera while it was in space, and others showing the missile blasting off from land. There was no mention of whether leader Kim attended the launch.

In 2017, the launch of the Hwasong-12 was quickly followed by the test-firing of the Hwasong-15, an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) which is powerful enough to hit the US mainland, said Hong Min of the Korea Institute for National Unification.

With the launch of the Hwasong-12, North Korea is “signalling the possibility of an ICBM launch and an imminent destruction of the moratorium,” he said in a note. With peace talks with Washington stalled, North Korea has doubled down on Kim’s vow to modernise the regime’s armed forces,. With reports of spiralling food prices and worsening hunger, a cash-strapped Pyongyang may be looking for a quick win. He sees displaying his military might as a way out of the woes. The string of launches in 2022 comes at a delicate time in the region, with Kim’s sole major ally China set to host the Winter Olympics next month and South Korea gearing up for a presidential election in March.

The renewed pressure comes as the pandemic further shakes the North’s economy, which was already pummelled by the sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme.

Kim’s high-stakes summitry with then-President Donald Trump derailed in 2019 after the Americans rejected North Korea’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul, said Kim is addicted to advanced weapons.

“He sees success in the military sector as the best weapon to restore his pride and elevate his status as a leader and of the nation to the highest level.”

Experts say Kim is trying to apply more pressure on rivals Washington and Seoul to accept it as a nuclear power in hopes of winning relief from economic sanctions and convert the diplomacy with Washington into mutual arms-reduction negotiations.

It remains to be seen whether Kim’s rhetoric is all bluster, meant for shock treatment rather than putting his money whether his mouth is. Only time will tell whether the ball is in Kim’s court, whether he remains a force to reckon with in the West.

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