January 13, 2022
IntelBrief: North Korea, Testing Ballistic Missiles, Remains Destabilizing Force in Asia
Led by the mercurial dictator Kim Jong Un, North Korea (also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) has mostly disappeared from the headlines, at least in Western newspapers. Yet, the danger it presents to regional and global stability remains. North Korea launched ballistic missiles on two different occasions this past week, in a stark reminder of the threat posed by the rogue regime destabilizing northeast Asia. Both South Korea and Japan expressed serious concern over the weapons tests, with Seoul calling them a “major threat, not only to the Korean Peninsula, but also to international peace and security.” China urged caution, warning regional countries not to overreact. The United Nations Security Council met to discuss the situation. Security Council resolutions have banned all ballistic missile and nuclear tests by DPRK and have imposed sanctions directly related to Pyongyang’s nuclear program. China and Russia have reportedly lobbied the Security Council to ease some sanctions in order to help North Korea’s sputtering economy.
North Korea continues to struggle with food shortages, and many experts believe that the country has been ravaged by COVID-19, although given the isolated nature of the regime, there are few details on number of cases, hospitalizations, or deaths. North Korea has reported zero cases of coronavirus and has refused to accept millions of vaccine donations. In a year-end speech delivered to North Korea’s Workers’ Party, Kim Jong Un promised to address the chronic food shortages by increasing agricultural production in the nation of 25 million people, although he offered no clear blueprint on exactly how the government would accomplish this. The leadership prioritizes regime survival above all else, but food shortages and famine are the most obvious indicator of state failure, an issue that also plagued the country during the rule of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong Un’s father and predecessor. The country endured a devastating famine in the late 1990s, with some estimates suggesting 3.5 million people died during this period. Even as the population suffers, Kim Jong Un is primarily focused on weapons technology and modernizing the country’s military.
Experts assess that North Korea is working to develop a hypersonic missile that demonstrates speed and maneuverability and provides countries with significant attack capabilities. Last year, Kim Jong Un boasted of the DPRK’s multiple-warhead nuclear missiles and nuclear-powered submarine, and in September 2021, it conducted a test of the Hwasong-8, equipped with a hypersonic gliding vehicle warhead. Missiles using solid fuel and able to perform maneuvers mid-air are more difficult to intercept and shoot down. Not only do recent developments reinforce North Korea’s ability to wage war, but they also raise concerns over the country’s connection to a global illicit arms network. North Korea maintains a vast overseas collection of shell companies that engage in money laundering and regularly attempts to obscure the identities of cargo-smuggling ships. North Korean hackers have stepped up efforts to launder money through cryptocurrencies and nonfungible tokens (NFTs).
Diplomatic overtures between the Trump administration and Kim Jong Un, including talks in 2018 and 2019, failed to produce any agreement. The Biden administration’s strategy for dealing with North Korea remains unclear. China is believed to be the only country able to influence DPRK, as its powerful neighbor and one which provides crucial economic assistance to prevent North Korea from collapsing. North Korea remains under sanctions for its nuclear program, and due in part to the continuing pandemic, its economy, already paltry due to its extreme isolation, contracted by an additional 4.5 percent in 2020. Conversations about great power competition focus primarily on the United States, China, and Russia, but North Korea’s pursuit of military modernization is a clear signal that it wishes to be considered in the same echelon and that its identity is becoming inextricably linked with its expanding weapons arsenal.