By Kelsey Davenport
North and South Korea traded threats in early April as Pyongyang continues to take steps to advance its nuclear weapons capabilities.
South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook said on April 1 that Seoul could “accurately and quickly strike any target” in North Korea. He touted South Korea’s “significantly improved” missile capabilities and said the country could conduct precision strikes against “the origin of any attack and its command and support facilities”.
South Korea is also working to develop a multi-layered missile defense system to ensure the country can “respond massively to changing missile threats from the North”, Suh said.
Suh’s comments came a week after North Korea claimed to have tested a more powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). (To see LAWApril 2022.)
Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and deputy director of the department of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, said in an April 4 statement that Suh’s threats of a preemptive strike against Korea du Nord were a “very big mistake”. .” If South Korea “opts for military confrontation” with North Korea, “our nuclear combat force will inevitably have to[y] do their duty,” she said. Pyongyang’s nuclear force is mainly used to prevent war, but in the event of a conflict, it will eliminate enemy armed forces, Kim said.
She said South Korea could avoid such a catastrophe by refraining from “untimely provocation”.
Besides its recent ICBM test, North Korea continues to develop its short-range missile capabilities. The South Korean military confirmed that North Korea had tested two short-range systems in the city of Hamhung on the country’s east coast on April 16. The missiles traveled 68 miles, according to South Korea.
North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) described the system as “a new-type tactical guided weapon” and noted that Kim Jong Un supervised the test.
The KCNA statement credits the new system with “drastically improving the firepower of front-line long-range artillery units and improving the operating efficiency of tactical nuclear weapons,” suggesting that the missiles tested are nuclear capable.
North Korea’s emphasis on long-range and short-range nuclear-capable ballistic missiles suggests that Kim is looking for capabilities to deter an attack on North Korea and repel an invasion, should deterrence fail.
In an April 18 press briefing, US Department of Defense press secretary John Kirby called the test a provocation and urged North Korea to refrain from any testing. He reiterated that the Biden administration is willing “to sit down in good faith and have a diplomatic discussion about how we will denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.” He said Pyongyang had responded to the administration’s willingness to negotiate without preconditions, “only with more tests”.
Sung Kim, U.S. special envoy for North Korea, reiterated the U.S. willingness to engage in dialogue during an April 18 visit to South Korea, but said the U.S. and South Korea “will maintain also the strongest possible joint deterrence capability”. He said the UN Security Council must send a “clear signal” to North Korea that “we will not accept its escalation tests as normal”.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US Ambassador to the United Nations, called on the Security Council to act after the March 24 ICBM test. She said the next day that the United States would introduce such a resolution.
Although the Security Council has yet to act, the United States on April 1 announced new sanctions targeting North Korea’s Ministry of Rocket Industry, which is involved in the procurement of missile components, and several organizations affiliated with the ministry.
North Korea also appears to be taking preparatory steps in case Kim decides to resume nuclear testing. Satellite imagery of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site shows increased activity in the main administrative area of the facility and indicates that North Korea “has continuously advanced work to restore Tunnel 3” at the site, according to an April 14 analysis by the Open Nuclear Network, a Vienna-based think tank.
North Korea last tested a nuclear weapon in 2017. In April 2018, in an attempt to demonstrate North Korea’s willingness to engage in negotiations with the United States, Kim announced nuclear test moratoriums and long-range missiles. As part of this commitment, North Korea decided to render the site inoperable by blowing up its test tunnels in May 2018.