Significant Escalation in Tensions Around Korean Peninsula

North Korea fires missiles two days apart . . . 

Two days after successfully conducting its longest-ever missile test, North Korea fired two short-range missiles this morning in apparent retaliation to the U.S.’ response to its earlier test. On Tuesday, North Korea tested a Hawasong-12 nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missile that flew over Japan for the first time in five years before crashing in the Pacific Ocean. The missile flew 4,600 km, far enough to reach the U.S. military base in Guam. The U.S, South Korea, and Japan responded by conducting various military exercises, and the U.S. redeployed the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier near the Korean Peninsula. A divided UN Security Council also met on Wednesday to discuss the matter without agreeing on the next steps, with only nine of the 15 members signing a statement condemning North Korea.

Why the increase in missile tests?

North Korea blames U.S.-South Korea military exercises in the region for pushing it to ramp up tests. Russia and China also accused the U.S. of provoking North Korea. The U.S. argues instead that Pyongyang now feels emboldened by support from Russia and China, enjoying “blanket protection from two members of [the UN Security] council.” Experts suggest Kim Jong-un believes it is an opportune time to demonstrate the progress of the North’s missile program since the U.S. is facing a difficult situation in Europe, and Russia and China are now opposing additional international sanctions against North Korea. In September, North Korea declared itself a nuclear state, a decision Kim Jong-un described as "irreversible."

What’s next?

Based on satellite images and intelligence, the U.S. believes North Korea is ready to conduct its seventh nuclear test. It is also believes that North Korea’s missile developments in the last few years have given it the capacity to hit U.S. territory. This, however, does not change the regional military balance, with the U.S.-South Korea alliance having clear military superiority. The recent tests could, however, revive debates over developing missile defence systems in both Japan and South Korea. With the Biden administration unwilling to ease sanctions to appease Kim and resume bilateral discussions, the West’s options to address the issue appear limited, and experts anticipate additional missile tests in the near future.