April 13, 2023 - 4:30pm

Last year’s record-breaking number of North Korean missile launches — over 70 — now seems less astonishing. This morning’s launch of a long-range missile, deemed by the United States and Japan to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), marks the North’s 27th exercise this year.

Earlier today, there was brief panic in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, as residents were told to shelter and evacuate. The missile eventually landed in the usual location of Pyongyang’s missiles, namely the East Sea/Sea of Japan, falling into Japan’s exclusive economic zone. It was just last October that North Korea launched an intermediate-range missile which, to the surprise of many, flew over Japanese territory. To say that the hermit kingdom’s capabilities are developing is no understatement. 

The perennial question remains just what motivates the cash-strapped North Korean regime to conduct such launches. The answer is an unholy trinity of deterrence, domestic propagandistic value, and Kim Jong-un’s determined quest for his state to gain international recognition as a nuclear-armed power. The latter requires the launching of new missile and nuclear capabilities, both for officials to ascertain whether these systems function as intended, and to show the world that denuclearisation is little more than a fantasy. Underpinning all these explanations is the Kim regime’s ultimate priority, ever since the establishment of the country in 1948: to maintain its survival no matter the cost on the human security of its people. 

Yet it is naive simply to dismiss today’s launch as just another addition to a long list of past — and future — missile launches. North Korea is increasing the technological sophistication and range of its missile capabilities, and the acceleration of this process is far from surprising. 

Only two years ago, at the Eighth Congress of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, Kim Jong-un outlined a pledge to expand his country’s arsenal by developing tactical nuclear weapons, military reconnaissance satellites, and solid-propellant ICBMs. The sheer lack of information about North Korea’s nuclear programme and decision-making, and the inability to obtain reliable information from the closed country cannot be underestimated. Yet we must also remember that North Korea does not make decisions in isolation. 

Now is an ideal time to conduct such launches. Beyond the rapprochement between Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang fuelled by Russia’s war in Ukraine, recent joint military exercises held between the United States and South Korea were fiercely denounced by the North. On the Korean Peninsula, relations have reached a remarkable low. In what appears to be an act of dissent against the alliance between the South and the United States, North Korea has refused to answer the inter-Korean hotline for over a week.

Domestically, provocations are also expected at this time of year. Saturday marks the most important date of the North Korean calendar: the birthday of the founding father of the country, Kim Il-sung, which has traditionally served as an opportunity for parades and celebrations to display the latest advancements in weaponry. 

As the North Korean economy delves deeper into crisis — a cost borne by its people — Kim Jong-un will want to consolidate his own power and ensure that popular loyalty to his regime is maintained. Crucially, however, North Korea is in his view a nuclear state. He wants the world to recognise it as such.

Dr Edward Howell is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at New College, University of Oxford. His latest book, under contract with Oxford University Press, investigates North Korea’s engagement with the global nuclear order.