Strategic Space

Unchecked and Unaffected: North Korea’s Nuclear Capability Marches On

26 Jan, 2022    ·   5804

Dr Manpreet Sethi looks at why the only way to resolve the issue is to first arrest Pyongyang’s capability growth by negotiating a freeze on the nuclear and missile programmes

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow at CAPS

The first month of 2022 is not yet over and North Korea has already conducted four missile test launches of varying ranges and capabilities. The fireworks appear to have started quite early this year. By contrast, in 2021, Pyongyang’s missile testing had begun only in March, presumably to allow time for President Biden to settle into the White House.

The recent tests re-tested technologies first demonstrated last year. Two of these were hypersonic missiles and the other two were short-range rail-based tactical guided missiles; the launches reportedly tested their response time and alert posture. Interestingly, the conduct of the hypersonic missile, especially its flight control, was graphically described by the state-owned Korean Central News Agency (KCNA): "The missile made a 120 kilometres lateral movement in the flight distance of the hypersonic gliding warhead from the initial launch azimuth to the target azimuth and precisely hit a set target 700 kilometres away." In addition, the missile demonstrated an ability to combine "multi-step glide jump flight and strong lateral manoeuvring." North Korea’s first hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, Hwasong-8, flew only 200 km at an altitude of 60 km in its September 2021 test. New technological advances are evidently being made.

The types of missiles being tested by North Korea indicate several things. These hypersonic capabilities are intended to sow doubt in the the US and its East Asian allies about the efficacy of the deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence systems. Speed and manoeuvring ability are being acquired to evade interception. Rail-based launches are meant to demonstrate new dimensions of mobility, and hence increasing the survivability of the arsenal. Taken together, the two technologies signal that the US can't be confident either about conducting a disarming first strike or the ability of missile defences to assure complete security. In both cases, North Korea seems to be playing well by the deterrence playbook.

Meanwhile, the US continues to look at North Korea’s nuclear capabilities as a proliferation problem that it must roll-back and eliminate to denuclearise the country—and till that happens, it must defend against the threat. US responses are, therefore, of two types. One, continue to impose economic sanctions to check Pyongyang’s spending on military advancements. And two, seek technological solutions through the deployment of a mix of advanced offensive and defensive systems to protect the region and US mainland.

Unfortunately, neither of these responses has brought or will bring greater security to the region. Sanctions have proved to be of little consequence, especially when there is an escape valve as big as China that allows the pressure to be let off. Missile defences, too, will become porous over time as North Korea’s hypersonic delivery systems become more sophisticated. So it is that despite facing the harshest sanctions for decades now, North Korea’s stance has only hardened, not least because of a growing confidence in its capability. In fact, every day, week, month, and year lost in not being able to engage North Korea on its nuclear capability allows it to continue testing, perfecting, and mastering new technologies. On 19 January, Kim Jong-un presided over a Politburo meeting that hinted at developing “without delay more powerful physical means to definitely overpower the daily intensifying hostile moves of the United States.” This is an obvious reference to re-starting some of the longer-range missile tests that were suspended during the summit diplomacy of 2018-19.

By now it should be clear to anyone who has been studying the North Korean nuclear problem that the only way to resolve this issue is to first arrest capability growth by negotiating a freeze on the nuclear and missile programmes. To do so, Washington will have to make this a priority, build consensus among the allies, and invite Pyongyang to the table with a clear strategy in mind. Now may be a good time to do this for at least two reasons. One, North Korea has travelled a fair distance towards building nuclear deterrence and can afford to halt this development with some sense of confidence. Two, its economy is in dire straits owing to the pandemic and climatic disasters.

It is worth noting that in his address to the party plenum in December 2021, Kim stressed a push towards economic development. He indicated a keen desire to develop and modernise the country’s agricultural and food production practices. This may offer a starting point to launch interactions with the kingdom. Pyongyang may be ripe for negotiations on a phased lifting of economic sanctions and help on the COVID-19 front in exchange for suspension of nuclear and missile activities, including missile testing and fissile material build-up. These incentives must be clearly communicated to North Korean citizens, perhaps through South Korea’s help. Once the masses are given hope of a life that is different from the one they seem to be living today, things could slowly change.

Undoubtedly, it is going to be a long haul to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. But the more it is allowed to carry on unchecked down the road of nuclear capability, the more difficult it will be to get it to pedal back. It is imperative that the country be gradually pulled into some kind of international nuclear verification system since its proliferation history, and that of its friends and allies, is replete with leakages. As its economic miseries grow and temptations of nuclear lucre rise, any nuclear material and technology pilferage or leakage from Pyongyang to other state or non-state actors would have severe consequences for regional and global security.


Dr Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow with the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.