We touched on this event a bit in the last digest, but the material went to press actually when the smoke had not yet cleared after the rocket launch. Now we can talk in more detail…
As reported by the KCNA, the launch was in response to the second meeting of the “nuclear consultative group” which proposed a “large-scale joint exercise to prepare a ‘nuclear counterstrike’ against our Republic.” As we previously reported, at the event, the allies agreed on a plan to include nuclear operation scenarios in the 2024 military exercises, including the Ulchi Freedom Shield summer exercise.
Kim Jong-un, his daughter and commanders from the DPRK’s General Department of Missile Engineering attended the drill: at 8:24 a.m., “a huge object, fully charged with the power and absolute will to mercilessly strike back at the hostile forces crazed in anti-republican nuclear confrontational ambition, rose into space with a planet-shaking loud rumble and a huge jet of fire.” The official DPRK TV report can be seen at the link, and among the photos cited by the KCNA were images of Earth, presumably taken from the rocket as proof that the flight was going well.
The launched missile flew for 4,415 seconds, with a range of 1,002.3 kilometres and a maximum altitude of 6,518.2 kilometres. According to experts, in the case of a launch on a normal trajectory, the missile would have flown 15,000 kilometres. This is enough to hit any region of the continental United States.
Kim expressed great satisfaction with the launch, saying it was “a practical demonstration of the actual status and reliability of the huge strike capability and absolute nuclear war deterrent possessed by the DPRK armed forces.” In his view, “it was an occasion to clearly show what action the DPRK has been prepared for and what option the DPRK will take when Washington makes a wrong decision against it.”
The leader’s contentment was underscored by a ceremonial photo session: as in the case of the satellite, on 20 December Kim Jong-un invited to the Party Central Committee headquarters, congratulated and inspired the soldiers of the Red Banner Second Company of the General Department of Rocket Engineering who participated in the Hwasongpo-18 launch exercise. Praising the soldiers, the DPRK leader noted that defending the country’s dignity, statehood and interests of the state is reliably guaranteed only by force and possessing the practical ability to launch a preventive strike, “this is the real defence force and the defence of lasting peace”. In this context, Kim Jong-un said that the launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile demonstrated his commitment to not hesitate to launch a nuclear strike in the event of nuclear provocations by the enemy.
On the same day on 20 December, North Korea’s central North Korean newspaper Nodong Sinmun indicated that the launch was “a great success that will help confront any crises,” stressing that North Korea had demonstrated to hostile forces a “tough will of retaliation.”
The New York Times calculated that North Korea conducted a total of 24 missile launches in 2023, including five ICBM launches, and the 2022 record of 37 missile launches was not broken. However, Pyongyang launched its first military spy satellite, Mallygyong-1, into space on 21 November, and the number of ICBM launches left last year behind.
ROK media provide a chronology of ICBM launches in recent years
27 February 2022, North Korea launches a ballistic missile towards the Sea of Japan in what was allegedly a test to develop its military spy satellite. According to the South Korean military, the missile flew about 300 kilometres at a maximum altitude of 620 kilometres. Seoul and Washington later said the launch was part of an effort to develop a new intercontinental ballistic missile system.
5 March 2022 – a new launch with the same target, but the missile flew about 270 kilometres at a maximum altitude of 560 kilometres.
24 March 2022, Launch of the Hwaseong-17 liquid-fueled ICBM. According to the South Korean military, the missile flew about 1,080 kilometres at a maximum altitude of more than 6,200 kilometres before landing in the Sea of Japan. Actually, that’s where all subsequent missiles fly.
25 May 2022, ICBM launch. The missile flew about 360 km at a maximum altitude of 540 km.
3 November 2022, Unsuccessful launch of Hwasong-17, according to ROK military, but the launch apparently ended in failure, according to South Korean officials: the missile flew about 760 km with an apogee of about 1,920 km at a maximum speed of Mach 15.
18 November 2022, North Korea launches the Hwasong-17 ICBM. According to the South Korean military, the missile travelled about 1,000 km with an apogee of about 6,100 km at a maximum speed of Mach 22.
18 February 2023, North Korea launched the Hwasong-15 liquid-fuelled intercontinental ballistic missile. The missile travelled about 900 km on a hinged trajectory, like all other launches of the year.
16 March 2023, there was another launch of the Hwasong-17. The missile flew about 1,000 km on an elevated trajectory.
13 April 2023, North Korea launches a new solid-propellant ICBM, the Hwasong-18. The missile flies about 1,000 km on an elevated trajectory.
On 12 July 2023, North Korea launches the Hwasong-18 again. The missile again flew about 1,000 km on an elevated trajectory.
18 December 2023, current launch. Also, Hwasong-18, which flew about 1000 km on an elevated trajectory.
As Russian military expert Vladimir Khrustalev notes, this chronicle shows that the DPRK’s missile industry was able to produce at least 3 solid-propellant ICBMs per year, plus 3 more rockets, which, successfully or not, were used to launch a satellite. 6 ICBMs per year – this is certainly “not the USSR or the USA of the 20th century, but China of the 1980s was overtaken by ICBM stamping for sure”.
This also means that the programme announced back in the mid-2010s to create a scientific and production base for solid rocket fuel, composites and a large programme for the independent production of launchers for missiles of all classes have been successfully implemented.
It should also be noted that the solid-propellant missile poses a big problem for South Korea and the United States, as the shorter refuelling time may make it difficult to detect and intercept with a preemptive strike system.
The launch caught no one by surprise. To be fair, First Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo had previously raised the possibility of North Korea launching an intercontinental ballistic missile in December 2023.
After that, everyone who should have, the State Department spoke out. On December 18, the United States condemned Pyongyang’s ballistic missile launches, which violate numerous UN Security Council resolutions, threaten North Korea’s neighbours and undermine regional security. Washington’s commitments to protect allies in the Asia-Pacific region remain in force.
On 17 December, the national security advisers of South Korea, the United States and Japan in a telephone conversation condemned North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) this week as a blatant violation of UN Security Council resolutions. According to their stated position, Pyongyang’s actions are a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions and a serious threat to peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, in Northeast Asia and to the entire international community.
Seoul has urgently convened a meeting of the National Security Council with the participation of the head of state, who condemned Pyongyang’s actions, stating his intention to give an “immediate and decisive” joint response with the US and Japan to the “provocation” by the DPRK.
ROK President Yun Seok-yol said North Korea would realise sooner or later that its provocations were damaging to itself. “A strong ROK-US nuclear alliance is becoming a reality,” the head of state said, assuring the people of the country that the government will ensure they live a comfortable life without worrying about a nuclear threat from North Korea.
The ROK’s JCPOA called the latest launch a “clear” violation of UN Security Council resolutions banning the North from using ballistic missile technology and called on the North to immediately stop its “reckless provocative actions.”
On 18 December, South Korean Defence Minister Shin Won-sik warned North Korea against ICBM launches, saying that Seoul and Washington could deploy additional strategic assets or conduct exercises to “decapitate” the North Korean leadership.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the Korean Peninsula issue is complex. Attempts to solve it by pressure through military deterrence will not bring results, but on the contrary, will have the opposite effect in the form of even more aggravation of confrontation and growth of tension. Thus, China has in fact placed the responsibility for what is happening on the United States, the ROK and Japan, which have recently significantly intensified and strengthened security co-operation. In addition, at a meeting with a representative of the DPRK, the Chinese Foreign Minister expressed support for Pyongyang.
In a more serious response, on 19 December, the ROK, the US and Japan introduced a system for sharing real-time data on North Korean missile launches and also developed a forward-looking plan for joint military exercises. The defence ministry did not provide details on the type of data the three neighbouring countries will share, but Minister Shin Won-sik said the day before that it includes the estimated point of launch of the missile, flight trajectory and expected point of impact.
Until now, the US has shared such data with the ROK and Japan separately under bilateral military co-operation agreements, but this is the first time a direct trilateral link has been established.
In addition, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have developed a long-term trilateral exercise plan to be implemented next year. It is aimed at systematising, updating and improving the effectiveness of the relevant manoeuvres. The document envisages regular missile defence and anti-submarine warfare exercises, as well as RIMPAC, Pacific Vanguard and other exercises.
On 19 December, at the initiative of the United States, the UN Security Council discussed Pyongyang’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. According to Nate Evans, spokesman for the US permanent mission to the UN, all missile launches by Pyongyang using ballistic technology are violations of Security Council resolutions.
Ahead of the meeting, 10 countries, including the ROK and the US, (South Korea, the US, the UK, France, Japan, Albania, Ecuador, Malta, Slovenia and Switzerland) prepared a joint statement in advance condemning Pyongyang’s actions, not forgetting to mention topics such as human rights, abductions and illegal activities in cyberspace.
However, like previous Security Council meetings on 25 August and 27 November to discuss North Korea’s missile launches, this ended inconclusively due to opposition from permanent members China and Russia. Nevertheless, the UN Secretary-General strongly condemned the launch, calling for compliance with international law and UNSC resolutions.
US Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Robert Wood, speaking at the meeting, called the missile launch “outrageous.” ROK Permanent Representative to the UN Hwang Jung Guk, who attended the meeting as a representative of an interested party, strongly condemned Pyongyang’s ballistic missile launches as a threat to regional security.
However, Chinese Deputy Permanent Representative Geng Shuang said that the missile launches were Pyongyang’s response to the threat from the United States, which is increasing its military presence in the region.
North Korean Permanent Representative Kim Song, who also attended the meeting as a representative of an interested party, gave a speech, which the KCNA quoted in full. The gist is expected:
- The launch “is a precautionary response” to the serious situation in the region, which is the fault of the US and ROK. “There is no person who will sit by simply idly in front of an enemy attacking with a knife, and there is no country that will be in an indifferent and defenceless state when large-scale military exercises by hostile countries are carried out at its doorstep”.
- The UNSC is again behaving “unjustly and abnormally by improperly treating the exercise of the DPRK’s legitimate right to self-defence.” It has changed as an unjust body where, due to the arbitrariness and willfulness of the US, brazen logic and double standards such as “It’s who matters, not what” are blatantly allowed.
- The U.S. demonstrates double standards by containing the DPRK and condoning Israel’s actions in Gaza, and as long as such practices are tolerated, “the UNSC has no moral or legal right to deal with issues of international peace and security.”
- As a result, “the international community needs to think for once about the DPRK’s security concerns not from the position of the US and the Republic of Korea, but from the opposite position.” And if “the U.S. and the Republic of Korea try to violate the sovereignty and security interests of the DPRK by a prolonged insane and irresponsible military threat, the armed forces of the DPRK will by no means allow such attempts, and also the provocateurs will bear full responsibility for all consequences.”
On 20 December, South Korea, the United States, and Japan conducted an exercise over the waters around the Korean Peninsula involving U.S. B-1B strategic bombers. South Korean F-15K, American F-16 and Japanese F-2 fighter jets escorted them in formation flight.
Note that this exercise was the 13th time this year that a U.S. strategic bomber, including a nuclear-capable B-52H, was deployed on or near the Korean Peninsula.
On 21 December, Kim Yo-jong, deputy head of department of the TPK Central Committee and “first sister” of Kim Yo-jong, issued a press statement calling the UNSC meeting a “great regret.” The convening of an open meeting of the UNSC “on the brigandish demands of the US and its satellites” is very unpleasant in itself, especially since in a good way, the Security Council “The UNSC should lay heavy responsibility for the irresponsible approach and behaviour on the US and the “Republic of Korea”, which, inspiring an anti-republican confrontational attitude, have been aggravating the situation on the Korean Peninsula with various military provocative acts throughout the year, and the international community should unanimously raise its voice to condemn the instigators of the escalation of the situation. “From now on, hostile forces had better worry about how the DPRK will define and judge the nature of the upcoming scenarios of military confrontation with the DPRK predicted by the US and ROK, and how the DPRK will respond to them,” she said.
Looking ahead to next year, ROK experts “express concern about the possible intensification of North Korean provocations ahead of the U.S. presidential election scheduled for November 2024.” Thus, Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in South Korea, expects that “next year, North Korea will stage high-intensity provocations against the United States with the intention of giving the nuclear disarmament talks the status of a nuclear power.”
To summarise. Sometimes the author has a feeling that it is possible to stop writing such materials, because they start to look like copywork. You can already imagine in advance what the KCNA will say about it, what concerns will be expressed in Washington and Seoul, and how another attempt to bring the issue to the UN Security Council will end. But perhaps it is for the best: if earlier even in the Russian press news of this kind was perceived as “oh horror, North Korea threatens all progressive mankind”, now it looks like “well, another missile”. And the fact that scary news ceases to be scary news is, pardon the pun, unequivocally good news.
It is clear that with high probability the launch will become an occasion for a new aggravation of the regional situation, because it did not come out of nowhere, but occurred in response to the actions of Washington and Seoul, although in response to the launch Washington and Seoul will take another series of countermeasures justifying them within the framework of the security dilemma. In this context, the author hopes that the “movement towards the dangerous line” is slowly beginning to turn into a “movement along the dangerous line” as each side, despite its bellicose rhetoric, has not yet crossed certain boundaries.
Konstantin ASMOLOV, candidate of historical sciences, leading researcher at the center for Korean studies, Institute of China and Contemporary Asia of the RAS, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.