N Korea may launch long-range missile this month, S Korean official says

A launch could test a missile alert system due to be activated soon by South Korea, Japan and the United States.
By Lee Jeong-Ho for RFA
Seoul, South Korea
N Korea may launch long-range missile this month, S Korean official says This image made from video of a news bulletin aired by North Korea's KRT on May 15, 2017, shows what was said to be the launch of the Hwasong-12 missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea.
KRT via AP Video, File

UPDATED at 14:46 ET on Dec. 15, 2023.

North Korea may test launch an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering multiple nuclear warheads to the United States mainland within this month, a South Korean official says.

Such an ICBM launch could test a real-time missile warning data sharing system among the U.S., South Korea, and Japan due to be activated by year’s end.

“There is a possibility of North Korea launching an ICBM in December,” South Korea’s first deputy director of the National Security Office, Kim Tae-hyo, said in Washington Thursday.

Kim, however, did not provide details on how Seoul reached that conclusion or confirm whether the assessment was shared with authorities in the U.S. 

Kim, who is visiting the U.S. capital for the second bilateral Nuclear Consultation Group meeting, told reporters that any forms of North Korea’s ballistic missiles could pose a practical “nuclear threat” against both the U.S. and South Korea.

“Preventing a nuclear attack by North Korea in advance, and firmly countering it in its initial stages in case of a miscalculation by North Korea, is the core principle of extended deterrence,” Kim said. 

Extended deterrence generally refers to the ability of U.S. military forces, particularly nuclear forces, to deter attacks on U.S. allies, such as South Korea and Japan, which do not have nuclear weapons.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul who has advised the South Korean government, assessed that Kim’s remarks appear to highlight the illegitimacy of North Korea’s missile provocations while rationalizing Seoul’s move to strengthen its extended deterrence capability with the U.S. 

“Given the recent history of missile provocations by North Korea, the continuous testing of high-output engines, and the impending need for defense achievements by year’s end, Kim’s statements are considered to be convincing,” Yang said.

Real-time warning system

On Thursday, the United States reaffirmed its joint plan with South Korea and Japan to launch a real-time warning data system for North Korean missiles. Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder said that the system is expected to be operational before the year's end.

The establishment of the system was agreed upon during a summit of the three allies in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in November last year. At a U.S.-South Korea-Japan trilateral summit at Camp David this August, the three leaders pledged to activate the system by the end of this year.

A person familiar with the matter in Seoul, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, told RFA that the activation is likely to take place within next week. Should North Korea carry out an ICBM test launch this month, it would mark the first activation of this system. 

North Korea has strongly protested the warning system. Official news outlet Rodong Sinmun said Thursday that the information sharing system was a “dangerously reckless military act” that aims to escalate the regional situation into a more dangerous phase of confrontation. Additionally, the paper said the system was intended to provoke a war in the Korean Peninsula. 

North Korea has been pursuing the capability to deliver nuclear warheads to the U.S. mainland which it views as vital for its deterrence and, consequently, its regime security. Should it achieve this capability, the current negotiations with North Korea on denuclearization may shift towards discussions on disarmament – aligning with Pyongyang’s long-term goal of being recognized as a nuclear state.

North Korea most recently tested an ICBM in July, the Hwasong-18, which it claimed to be a solid-fuel missile. Such a missile could be quicker to prepare for launch than a liquid-fuel missile and therefore harder to detect.

The Hwasong-18 launch was the second of its kind, following the first test in April. In March, North Korea also tested the Hwasong-17, and in February, the Hwasong-15 – both ICBMs, allegedly capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

North Korea, however, has not yet demonstrated its technology to enable a missile to re-enter the atmosphere and strike a target, nor has it conducted a real-distance test of its ICBMs. 

The technological progression, however, may have been improved with Pyongyang reportedly receiving technological assistance from Moscow, followed by a successful testing of its military reconnaissance satellite last month.

Transferring relevant technology may pose a threat to the international community as rocket technologies can be used for both launching satellites and missiles. For that reason, the U.N. bans North Korea from launching a ballistic rocket, even if it claims to be a satellite launch. 

“If North Korea’s strategic intent also involves exerting political pressure on the U.S. mainland ahead of the U.S. presidential election next year, the possibility of launching an ICBM before a medium-range missile cannot be completely ruled out,” said Yang from the University of North Korean Studies. 

Edited by Mike Firn, Taejun Kang and Mat Pennington.

Updated to add background, recast lead and make minor edits.


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