Dominating the headlines yesterday was the latest missile launch by North Korea. It was the 17th launch this year, but what made this one particularly significant was the missile type. US authorities confirmed that the Hwasong-14 missile was an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile), a long-range projectile designed to carry a nuclear warhead and the first of its kind to be successfully tested by North Korea. Although Tuesday’s test only flew 933km, its estimated maximum range is said to be 6,700km, which would allow it to reach the US mainland in Alaska. This marks a significant leap forward in the regime’s missile capabilities, a milestone celebrated by the state news agency, KCNA. It subsequently reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had described the test as a “gift” to America on its Independence Day. With tensions once again rising, here’s a brief history of how the North Korean regime has provoked the West through its development of long-range missiles.
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the North Korean regime has pursued a policy of provocation, in particular through the expansion of its military capabilities. The origins of the regime’s missile programme can be found in 1965, when Kim Il Sung ordered that his country should be able to produce its own missiles. These were to serve as both a deterrent and an offensive weapon in the event of another conflict with the US and its allies. However, real progress didn’t begin until 1976, when it reportedly received a shipment of Scud-B missiles from Egypt. These were developed by the Soviet Union, and it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Pyongyang could build its own missiles. The Hwasong-5 was the first of North Korean origin; it was produced from 1984 and had a range of 1,000 km. This was followed in 1993 by the successful testing of the Nodong, its first intermediate-range ballistic missile. The development of these weapons put South Korea and much of Japan within range, making even the regime’s preliminary arsenal a significant threat. Pyongyang has also benefited from exporting its missiles to a range of countries including Libya, Iran and Syria. In one case a North Korean ship transporting missile parts, the So San, was stopped by US and Spanish ships in 2002 on its way to Yemen, but was ultimately allowed to reach its destination. Another important milestone was the moratorium agreed with the US during talks in 1999, in which North Korea arranged to halt long-range missile tests in exchange for a partial lifting of economic sanctions. This lasted, after several extensions, until the (failed) launch of the long-range Taepodong-2 in 2006.
Following the temporary halt in testing the regime stepped up its missile development, especially after Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011. In just six years he has sanctioned 83 tests, more than previous leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung combined. The regime has also started to time their launches to coincide with major political and cultural events for maximum effect. The number of launches increased dramatically in the period following the election of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, for example, as well as Tuesday’s test which coincided with Independence Day. The development of North Korea’s first ICBM is a major cause for concern for the West since it can be fitted with a nuclear warhead, though doubts exist as to whether it currently has the technology to do so. According to former CIA director Michael Hayden, it is believed that North Korea will have developed a nuclear missile capable of hitting the US mainland before the end of Trump’s term as President. Predictions such as these, alongside the success of Pyongyang’s most recent test, could lead to the US taking more serious action to deter Kim Jong-un from his increasingly aggressive missile policy.