North Korean missile tests more frequent than ever amid nuclear fears

According to data from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), North Korea has launched 43 missiles so far in 2022 – more than in any other year on record. After firing a dozen ballistic missiles over the past two months, it has been reported that Kim Jong-un himself was supervising the tests to demonstrate the dictatorship’s nuclear capabilities to the world. Credible intelligence reports suggest the country is already preparing for a nuclear weapon test, raising fears of escalation to new heights.

With NATO’s focus fixed on Russia and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, North Korea has been increasingly antagonistic towards its neighbours. 

Over the past week, Pyongyang has fired multiple short-range ballistic missiles towards its eastern waters, let off hundreds of artillery rounds near its border with South Korea and flown military aircraft close to its airspace.

State-controlled media outlet Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Wednesday’s latest test was aimed at “enhancing the combat efficiency and might” of cruise missiles deployed to the Korean People’s Army “for the operation of tactical nukes”.

The official paper for the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea claimed leader Kim Jong-un personally supervised the latest spate of missile launches to confirm the reliability of nuclear-capable weapons before their deployment.

It is believed the growing frequency of missile launches comes as a result of recent naval drills carried out in the region involving South Korean and a US aircraft carrier group.

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This latest spike in military activity comes just days after Pyongyang fired its first missile over Japan since 2017. After a five-year gap, many Japanese citizens awoke to the all-too-familiar sound of warning sirens telling them to take cover.

According to reports, in the early morning of October 3, an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) was launched from Mupyong-ri in North Korea’s Jagang province, located near the country’s border with China.

The rocket overflew Japan’s Tohoku region and continued 1,800 miles beyond its eastern coast before splashing down in the Pacific – making it Pyongyang’s longest-ranged missile test to date.

Having travelled around 2,800 miles in total, the Hwasong-12 model test clearly demonstrated an attack on the US’s Pacific naval base in Guam was within reach.

When North Korea last tested a similar missile, then-US President Donald Trump called his North Korean counterpart a “Rocket Man” and sent supersonic bombers to the area. Pyongyang’s provocation was regarded as a rehearsal for a potential invasion by Western forces.

North Korea’s testing programme has seen tension simmer throughout the year, but the pace has picked up considerably in the past month. 

The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) North Korea Missile Test Database tracks all launches capable of delivering a payload of at least 500kg (1100 pounds) at a distance of at least 300km (186 miles). By their count, 12 such firings have taken place since September 24 alone.

The number of missile tests had already hit a record high in June and now stands at 43 for the year – compared to just six last year, and a test-less 2018.

In 2018 and early 2019, two summits between Kim Jong-un and then-POTUS Trump brought tests briefly to a halt, but the pace soon picked up again as the rhetoric grew more heated.

According to the NTI, the 27 tests in 2019 ended up surpassing the 22 recorded in 2017, when North Korea’s first demonstration of its ability to reach US territory with its missiles led to a diplomatic crisis. 

There wasn’t a single intercontinental or IRBM test between 2018 and 2021, but there has already been one successful test of each this year so far. 

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According to the NTI, there are currently 13,100 nuclear weapons in the world, divided among nine countries – Russia, the US, the UK, France, Japan, Pakistan, China, India, Israel and North Korea.

North Korea unilaterally withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in January 2003. The country is also not a party to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and has conducted six nuclear tests since 2006.

The NTI notes North Korea has “active and increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and is believed to possess chemical and biological weapons capabilities”. 

As of September 2022, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimates Pyongyang to have produced enough fissile material to build 45 to 55 nuclear weapons and “might have assembled 20 to 30 warheads for delivery primarily by medium-range ballistic missiles”.

In his first speech on his country’s missile programme in several months, Kim Jong-un reportedly said: “Our nuclear combat forces proved again their full preparedness for actual war to bring the enemies under their control.” 

The same day, South Korea’s vice defence minister Shin Beom-chul told local radio station SBS that the flurry of recent tests by Pyongyang shows North Korea may be building up to testing a nuclear device for the seventh time.

He said: “North Korea is testing various missiles. And now they’ve tested cruise missiles, and I think they’ll test the tactical nuclear weapon parts that can be loaded on each warhead. North Korea hasn’t conducted a tactical nuclear test, so it needs to make the nuclear warheads smaller and verify them.”

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