More North Korean missile tests likely in coming weeks, months; escalation to direct conflict unlikely

Further to our note that a missile test was likely, North Korea on 13 February said that it conducted a successful test of a new intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) that could carry a nuclear warhead on 12 February.

The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency on 13 February said the nuclear-capable Pukguksong-2 weapons system conducted a successful test launch on 12 February. The report also claimed that the system’s missiles could carry out in-flight evasive manoeuvres. South Korean military sources early on 12 February said they had detected a modified Musudan type missile being launched from the western North Korean airbase of Banghyong; the missile reached an altitude of 550km and travelled 500km before falling into the East Sea (Sea of Japan).

Key takeways:

  • The latest missile test is unlikely to significantly raise tensions or security threats on the Korean peninsula in the coming weeks. However, further tests are likely in the coming months, particularly during US-South Korean joint military exercises, which have routinely seen an increase in military activity by the North. More missile tests or other activities, such as a nuclear test or brief incursions across the maritime border, would raise tensions, but prospects of war remain remote.
  • The missile test will likely accelerate efforts by the new US administration to communicate its North Korean policy; a push to expand sanctions, including through the UN, is likely. A brief press conference held by US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was on a state visit to the US, reaffirmed US Defense Secretary Mattis’s 3 February statements that the US would maintain security support to allies in the region.
  • North Korea in 2016 conducted an unprecedented two nuclear tests and over twenty missile tests, which triggered the UN’s most stringent sanctions on the country to date. A US senator in early January said that the US should impose ‘secondary sanctions’ on Chinese companies doing business with North Korea; the US sanctioned a Chinese company supporting Pyongyang’s nuclear efforts in late 2016.

A testing 2017

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a New Year’s Day address said that his country was in the final preparation stages for conducting an ICBM test. North Korea is likely to conduct several more missile or nuclear tests during 2017. Other upcoming anniversaries include the birthday of North Korea’s founding father Kim Il-sung on 15 April and the anniversary of Kim Jong-un’s assumption of the position of leader of the Workers’ Party of Korea on 11 April. The North’s provocations – which could also include brief incursions across the maritime boundary between the two Koreas or military drills – could be conducted around the time of South Korean elections (scheduled for December but likely to be held in the next six months) and during annual US-South Korean military drills usually held between March and May.

Choe Kang-il, deputy director general for North American affairs at the North Korean foreign ministry, on 25 January in an interview with US television network NBC said that Pyongyang’s efforts to improve its missile and nuclear weapons technology were ‘all defensive in nature – to defend our sovereignty’. Choe stated that sanctions would not force North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme.


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