North Korea’s weapons program defies the COVID outbreak and reaches “uncharted territory”
SEOUL, Dec 27 (Reuters) – North Korea pressed ahead with its missile program in 2022 and moved to resume nuclear bomb tests, as world events like the COVID pandemic and war fractured already tenuous international pressure on its against.
The country acknowledged its first outbreak of COVID-19 in May, extending already strict border closures and other anti-pandemic measures, blocking international engagement and causing economic problems, but doing little to curb its weapons tests.
The true extent of COVID there remains unconfirmed amid a lack of independent testing and monitoring.
This year provided the clearest evidence yet that North Korea now sees itself as a permanent power of nuclear weapons and that Pyongyang has no intention of involving the United States in denuclearization talks, said Evans Revere, a former US diplomat.
“We are in dangerous and uncharted territory when it comes to the North Korean threat,” he said. “The possibility of denuclearizing North Korea has almost disappeared.”
North Korea resumed testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for the first time since 2017, successfully launching the massive new Hwasong-17, which is believed to have the range to strike anywhere in the United States.
Pyongyang has also launched a series of increasingly capable short-range missiles, in what it says is a strategy for deploying tactical nuclear weapons.
North Korea has also made preparations to reopen its closed nuclear test site, raising the possibility of a new nuclear bomb test for the first time since 2017.
With the world distracted by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and growing competition between Washington and Beijing, the tests appear aimed at making real progress in improving the country’s military power, analysts said.
“North Korea could at least pretend it was open to dialogue, but it hasn’t,” said Ramón Pacheco Pardo, a Korea expert at King’s College London. “I think the Kim regime simply wants to improve its capabilities, regardless of the consequences.”
BECAUSE IT IS IMPORTANT
North Korea has been banned for years from nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches by the United Nations Security Council, which has tightened sanctions against Pyongyang.
However, in May, China and Russia vetoed a US-led attempt to impose more UN sanctions on North Korea, publicly dividing the council for the first time since it began punishing Pyongyang in 2006.
Since then, the United States and its allies in South Korea and Japan have resorted to shows of military force, including joint drills and deployments of US aircraft carriers and long-range bombers, in a hitherto futile effort to deter Pyongyang from testing.
North Korea’s missile tests have allowed it to refine and, in some cases, operationally deploy new capabilities that enable rapid, first-time use of nuclear weapons in the event of both conventional and nuclear attacks, said Duyeon Kim of the Center for a New, US-based American Security.
“Tactical nuclear weapons are dangerous because they can start a war either by miscalculation, retaliation or preference, and the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons would be even lower,” he said.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR 2023?
As North Korea opens up to trade and travel again, it will likely continue to side with China and Russia and be less concerned about engagement with the United States and South Korea, Pacheco Pardo said.
If it is true that Pyongyang expects the pandemic to last until 2024, then next year there may be continued tensions.
“We may see more weapons tests, chest-thumping postures, and threats until you feel virus-safe to return to negotiations and easily arm yourself with even more political clout for big concessions or indefinite recognition as a nuclear power. Duyeon Kim said.
explore the Reuters news roundup that dominated the year, and the prospects for 2023.
Reporting by Josh Smith; Edited by Lincoln Festival.
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