24.04.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

A Chronicle of Tensions on the Korean Peninsula in Early April 2023

A Chronicle of Tensions on the Korean Peninsula

Despite this author’s previous article’s assumption that the heat of the “spring escalation was subsiding,” April 2023 will not be an easy month for the Korean Peninsula due to a series of memorable events such as the Day of the Sun on April 15 and the anniversary of the formation of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army (April 25). Pyongyang has also announced that it will launch its military reconnaissance satellite in April and will try to respond to President Yoon Suk-yeol’s state visit to the United States.

On April 2, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published a commentary titled “War Maniacs Will Pay Dearly for Reckless Moves” which analyzed in detail the course of the “Ssangyong” joint landing drill and other elements of US and ROK military activities, emphasizing their offensive nature and focus on preventive strike tactics: “This shows that their hostile acts against the DPRK have reached the worst phase,” but “the US and its followers should never forget the fact that their rival state actually possesses the nuclear attack capability and the characteristics of the people and army of the DPRK which do not make empty talk as well. It will be quite clear how the DPRK’s nukes will be used if the war deterrence does not work on those who are running amuck unafraid of nuclear weapons.”

On April 3, the navies of the ROK, US and Japanese navies began a joint exercise in international waters south of Jeju Island.  They practiced anti-submarine and search-and-rescue operations. The ROK Navy was represented by three destroyers, including the Yulgok Yi I, equipped with the Aegis early detection system, and a combat support ship. On the US side, the aircraft carrier Nimitz and two destroyers, Wayne Meyer and Decatur, participated in the maneuvers. Japan sent the destroyer JS Umigiri.

On April 5, South Korea and the United States conducted a joint air exercise involving at least one US B-52H Stratofortress strategic bomber. The bomber is a key US strategic asset that can fly 6,400 kilometers and carry 31 tons of weapons, including air-to-ground nuclear missiles with a range of up to 200 kilometers. The training was aimed at practicing procedures to protect the strategic bomber from potential airborne threats and enhance interoperability of allied forces and joint operational capabilities.

April 6. The KCNA published an article titled “Expansion of US-led War Drills for Aggression Is Trigger for Driving Situation on Korean Peninsula to Point of Explosion”, criticizing the early April drills and once again noting that “the reckless military confrontational hysteria of the US and its followers against the DPRK is driving the situation on the Korean peninsula to an irreversible catastrophe.” According to the author, only military exercises of the US and its satellites are aimed at a certain state, which makes the Korean Peninsula turn into a huge powder magazine, fraught with the danger of explosion at any time.

Meanwhile, from April 4-7, the DPRK tested an underwater attack drone system capable of carrying nuclear weapons, and it was no longer the Heil-1, but the Heil-2.  In 71 hours and six minutes, the drone sailed 1,000 kilometers through the waters of the Sea of Japan and followed a complex elliptical and eight-shaped trajectory to arrive at the target area near Tanch’ŏn Port in South Hamgyong Province, where its test warhead exploded underwater.

While the “Haeil-1” has a range of 600 km, the “Haeil-2” has a range of 1,000 km. That means that not only all of South Korea’s ports/naval bases are within reach of a potentially nuclear drone, but also a number of most of Japan’s similar facilities. Then, because it is a low-visibility underwater weapon, it is not possible to either confirm Pyongyang’s claims about the parameters of the test or refute them. This means that a reasonable adversary would be forced to consider the presence of such weapons in the DPRK, and in planning for war would have to devote serious resources to neutralizing this threat as well.

Reaction to the third nuclear torpedo drone test has been mixed. On the one hand, South Korea’s military argued that the capabilities of the Haeil may have been exaggerated or even faked. But analysts interviewed by the Korea Times indicated that it could develop into a serious threat in the long term.

On April 10, the South Korean military began its annual exercise of local authorities, police and firefighters “Hwarang 2023,” which will take turns in a total of six regions.   The program includes training to defend important national facilities against North Korean nuclear and missile threats as well as counterterrorism operations, including defense against cyberterrorism.

On the same day, Pyongyang hosted an expanded meeting of the Central Military Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chaired by the country’s leader Kim Jong-un. The meeting discussed “important military issues,” and in his speech the DPRK leader “stressed the need to expand the DPRK’s war deterrence being strengthened with increasing speed on a more practical and offensive and to effectively apply it as a measure for more strict control and management of the ever-worsening security on the Korean peninsula.”

But the most interesting thing happened on April 13, when a ballistic missile was launched from the vicinity of Pyongyang and flew toward the Sea of Japan.  Its range when launched along an elevated trajectory is estimated to be about 5,000 km. This was Pyongyang’s ninth ballistic missile launch since the beginning of the year.

As the KCNA reported, “a powerful entity symbolic of the ceaseless development of the strategic force of the DPRK notified the world of its emergence and the effectiveness of a new strategic weapons system.”

Kim Jong-un attended the launch with his entire family (wife, daughter, and younger sister) and was so pleased that he personally suggested that more than 10 scientists from the relevant defense field be awarded the title of Hero of Labor of the DPRK.

Solid propellants provide greater mobility and shorter pre-launch preparation times than liquid propellants.  In addition, the ICBM uses a “cold-start” method in which the rocket engines are ignited shortly after being ejected from the mobile launcher – this can help protect the launch platform from the flash of flame that occurs when the missile is launched.

“The Hwasong-18” is claimed to be “the primary and leading tool in the aggression deterrence system.” The availability of such a missile indeed makes it possible to radically restructure the composition of strategic nuclear deterrence forces, drastically increasing their effectiveness and readiness for counterattack.

The Pentagon’s classified documents leaked to the Internet described the potential of the new North Korean ICBM, which was first demonstrated at a military parade in February this year, as “overly exaggerated.” Moreover, it was noted that it was highly likely that these were fake missiles and not real missiles.

As an anonymous security expert told the “Korea Times,” “the development of the new missile appears designed to derail South Korea’s three-axis defense system and shake America’s deterrence response,” especially the Kill Chain preemptive strike system.

In response, Seoul convened a meeting of the National Security Council. As a result, the South Korean authorities condemned the actions of the DPRK, and announced a decision to further strengthen the exchange of information in the format of the United States and the ROK, the United States, Korea, and Japan. The United States also strongly condemned North Korea, while Kim Gunn, the US special envoy for peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, Son Kim, the special envoy for North Korean affairs, and Takehiro Funakoshi, director of the Asia and Oceania Department of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, discussed the launch by telephone and “expressed their strong opposition to any provocation by Pyongyang, stressing the importance of security cooperation between the three countries.”

The ROK also announced a 20-minute nationwide civil defense exercise on May 16.  After the air-raid alarm, the public will have to evacuate to the nearest underground shelter, following the instructions of the responsible guide, and vehicles will have to stop for 15 minutes on the right side of the road and listen to the authorities’ instructions over the radio. The civil defense exercise will be held for the first time in six years – the last one was held in 2017.

China, on the other hand, blamed rising tensions on the US. Beijing urged all sides to remain calm and restrained and to stop pressure and confrontation.

Thus, Pyongyang is moving forward with a series of defense projects presented at the eighth WPK congress in January 2021. At that time, the world was promised to develop a hypersonic warhead, increase the “kill rate” of missiles with a range of 15,000 kilometers, produce an “ultra-large” nuclear warhead, and develop an ICBM using an “underground or ground-based solid-propellant engine.” In this context, Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, believes that these were test firings, and there are more additional launches to come.

One should also expect retaliatory gestures from the opposite side. On April 14, South Korea and the United States again conducted joint air exercises involving at least one B-52H strategic bomber. According to the ROK Defense Ministry, the South Korean Air Force mobilized its F-35A radar-dodging fighters and F-15K jets for the exercise, while the US side deployed F-16 fighters.

Let’s hope the “spring escalation” doesn’t turn into a fall escalation after all, and the movement toward the danger line will slow down.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook.

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