On October 1, 2022, a North Korean intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) entered Japanese airspace and crossed over into the Pacific Ocean. The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff tracked the launch back to the Mupyong-ri region in the Jagang province of North Korea (Yonhap News Agency, 2022). This launch represents the first IRBM test since this past January. North Korea fired a total of five missiles from September 25 to October 4. This brings the total number of launches to 23 for the year 2022 and surpasses the previous record by three (Cha, 2022).
The October missile, however, outperformed its predecessors, landing over 2,850 miles east of Japan. The record distance proves that North Korean missiles, specifically the Hwasong-12, are capable of striking the island of Guam. A similar test was conducted in 2017 when another Hwasong-12 was launched over Japan with similar results (Cha, 2022). From that point forward, North Korea has not conducted any further missile tests over Japanese skies. However, the recent IRBM incident breaks this five-year pause, leading North Korean scholars to investigate the goal of the October 3rd launch (Yeung, 2022). To put the test in proper context, it is informative to examine the previous launch conducted in 2017.
The 2017 Predecessor
In total, North Korea has fired a total of seven missiles over the Japanese islands since September 25th of this year (Staff Writers, 2022). However, the missile launched earlier in September 2017 bears much in common with its 2022 counterpart. The projectile traveled nearly 2,300 miles until it hit the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Up until 2022, this test held the record for the farthest launch of a North Korean IRBM (Griffiths, 2017). The 2017 test launched the same type of missile used in the 2022 test (Cha, 2022). The test was conducted the day after the Korea Asia-Pacific peace committee, North Korea’s foreign relations agency, threatened to “reduce the US mainland into ashes and darkness” (McCurry, 2017). Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), a government-controlled news outlet, contributed to this anti-Western rhetoric, stating that the “four islands of the [Japanese] archipelago should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb of Juche” (Griffiths, 2017).
Thus, the West, specifically Japan and South Korea, was quite firm in their response to the 2017 launch. The launch triggered Japan’s missile alert system in the Hokkaido area, and residents were advised to take shelter through a combination of sirens and text messages (Wingfield-Haynes, 2017). According to the then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Japan was able to recognize the threat, track it, and respond appropriately (Griffiths, 2017). Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe labeled the test “totally unacceptable,” further stating that “the international community needs to unite and send [a] clear message after North Korea’s dangerous provocation. We must let North Korea understand there is no bright future for North Korea if it continues in this way” (Griffiths, 2017).
South Korea made a counter statement by launching two missiles over their east coast. According to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, the first missile was capable of targeting and striking the area near where the Hwasong-12 was launched (Griffiths, 2017). The first missile hit its target over 150 miles away in the ocean while the second one missed and sank (Phipps & Russell, 2017). The South Korean President’s spokesperson Park Soo-hyun confirmed that their military has been instructed, “to prepare a stern measure that can effectively counter North Korea’s increasing nuclear and military threats” (Griffiths, 2017).
The Current Situation
Compared to the October launch, the circumstances surrounding the two launches have some similarities. The 2022 launch came on the heels of the U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea. During her stay, Harris strongly condemned North Korea, observing that, “In the North, we see a brutal dictatorship, rampant human rights violations and an unlawful weapons program that threatens peace and stability” (Hunnicutt, 2022). The formal goal of the visit was to reaffirm the United State’s role in enforcing South Korean security. Harris accomplished this goal by assuring that South Korea would be protected under “the full range of U.S. defense [sic] capabilities” (Hunnicutt, 2022). Despite these clear warnings, North Korea resumed missile testing about two hours after Harris departed from South Korea, shooting two missiles off the coast aimed in her flight’s direction (Hunnicutt, 2022). These missiles were a part of the series of tests that led to the October 1st launch (Staff Writers, 2022b).
Japan, South Korea, and the United States have sought to strengthen their military ties since the test. The day following the launch, American and South Korean forces tested their own missiles and conducted a mock bombing run in the Yellow Sea (Mitchell, 2022). The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command released an announcement, claiming that this demonstration was designed to “showcase combined deterrent and dynamic strike capabilities” between the two militaries (United States Indo-Pacific Command Public Affairs, 2022). According to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, the bombing run included four U.S. Air Force F-16s and four South Korean F-15K fighter jets that took part in the exercise. Live munitions were used with one F-15K striking an island west of South Korea with two Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) precision bombs. Additionally, the United States has moved the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier to a position off North Korea’s eastern coast. This redeployment is designed to reinforce the United States goal of deterring North Korean aggression (Mitchell, 2022).
Japan’s response mirrors its reaction to previous North Korean missile threats. After publicly denouncing the provocation and holding meetings regarding national security, Japan called for the UN Security Council to take punitive measures against North Korea for violating multiple UN resolutions. The Japanese UN ambassador criticized the council for failing to take initiative against North Korean aggression and petitioned for redress through sanctions. Earlier this year, however, Russia and China blocked similar petitions by vetoing a US-backed resolution that would have imposed said sanctions on North Korea for this year’s increase in missile testing. Although it was vetoed back in June, the resolution demonstrated Russia and China’s willingness to disrupt international measures taken against North Korea to further their own goals (Depetris, 2022). Nevertheless, Japan has invited the United States and South Korea to a trilateral meeting in Tokyo sometime in October (Kim, 2022).
Even before the launch, Japan was seriously considering an increase in its defense spending. As of last month, the Japanese government has considered boosting its defense spending by nearly $280 billion throughout the next five years. This would bring Japan’s total defense spending to 2 percent of its GDP, a significant departure from the former 1 percent cap. The majority of these funds will be directed towards anti-missile defenses, cruise missiles, and various strategic intelligence enhancements (Staff Writers, 2022a). The proposed budget shift is the follow up to a promise made back in June by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida: “I am determined to fundamentally reinforce Japan’s defence [sic] capabilities within the next five years and secure a substantial increase of Japan’s defence [sic] budget needed to effect such reinforcement” (Depetris, 2022). A poll conducted this past May indicates that 64 percent of Japanese civilians supported this increase in military expenditures while only 10 percent opposed it. The recent launch has likely increased the popularity of this shift toward defense spending (Depetris, 2022).
Analyzing the Recent Launch
Although an in-depth analysis of the October test has yet to be conducted, this type of scholarship exists for the 2017 launch. One particular article written by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests that while North Korean missiles do not pose much of a threat on their own, the continued development of North Korean nuclear technology could alter the scales of power that exists between North Korea and its Western enemies. In 2017, North Korea seemed ill-equipped to fight a conventional war. Many of its military technologies were becoming outdated, leaving the rest of the country exposed to the ever-improving South Korean arsenal. At the time, North Korean missiles could not pose a real threat to Japan or Guam, as the predicted damage of each strike was minimal. Therefore, any further escalation of the North Korean missile threat back in 2017 would only “justify greater retaliation in kind with U.S. and South Korean precision conventional weapons” (Cordesman, 2017).
That could all change, however, if North Korea acquired nuclear weapons. Losing entire cities filled with human lives in a conventional war with North Korea would become too difficult for either the United States or South Korea to justify. A nuclear North Korea could also alter its current relationship with China. Chinese support of North Korea seems to be solely based on North Korea’s value as a buffer state with South Korea. As long as North Korea does not fall to the West, the enormous Asian power has no investment in keeping North Korea’s missile program afloat. If North Korea becomes enough of a nuclear threat to South Korea and Japan that the United States provides both allies with nuclear deterrence, China would be forced to either protect North Korea under the same deterrence or oppose North Korea’s provocation of the West. Furthermore, if preemptive strikes fail to destroy North Korea’s nuclear warheads, the United States will have to guarantee nuclear protection to these two allies outright, increasing the potency of future nuclear conflicts. Although there is no clear solution to the North Korean missile threat, the situation going forward hinges on whether North Korea acquires nuclear weapons (Cordesman, 2017).
While the reasons behind the most recent North Korean missile test over Japan are unknown, the results of the test can be easily summarized. Japan was already considering bolstering its military defense budget before the launch and now, will likely follow through with the Prime Minister’s plan. It has also caused the United States and South Korea to respond to the launch with a show of force, indicating that they will not treat the North Korea missile threat lightly. The test has exposed the inefficiency of the United Nations in enforcing punitive measures on North Korea for clearly violating international law. Lastly, as the 2017 launch demonstrated, North Korea will not be a true threat unless it can arm itself with nuclear warheads.
Cha, V. et al. (2022, October 5). North Korea Tests Missile over Japan. Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://www.csis.org/analysis/north-korea-tests-missile-over-japan-0
Cordesman, A. (2017, September 5). Destabilizing Northeast Asia: The Real Impact of North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs. Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://www.csis.org/analysis/destabilizing-northeast-asia-real-impact-north-koreas-nuclear-and-missile-programs
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Staff Writers. (2022, October 4b). (3rd LD) N. Korea fires IRBM over Japan: S. Korean military. Yonhap News Agency. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20221004001353325