top of page
  • Lucy Ferriby-Stocks

North Korea Missile Tests: Pontification or Provocation?


The Hwasong-17 missile has been dubbed "monster missile" by analysts.

At 7:30 in the morning, you may hear a variety of things; the buzz of an alarm clock, music on the radio as you drive to work or even just morning chatter on the bus as it weaves its way through traffic. The harrowing and ominous noise of sirens, however, is not the typical soundtrack to someone’s morning routine. This is what the people of Japan were greeted with on October 4, along with text alerts which read “North Korea appears to have launched a missile. Please evacuate into buildings or underground” – a terrifying thought in the post-Cold War world.

According to Japanese officials, the intermediate-range ballistic missile travelled 4,600km, at a top speed of Mach 17, meaning 17 times the speed of sound. North Korea has a variety of missiles in its arsenal, from the Nodong missile which can travel up to 1,500km to the Hwasong-17 which can reach a destination 15,000km away. On this occasion, when talking to CNN, experts anticipated that a Hwasong-12 was the likely culprit and was last tested by the nation in January of this year.

There have been 23 missile provocations by North Korea so far in 2022, but none of these has involved a weapon being fired over another nation's sovereign territory. Thankfully no one was hurt, and it hasn’t led to a physical conflict, but these are dangerous waters. This was undoubtedly a provocative move by North Korea and a significant escalation to their testing program with only 4 tests occurring in 2020 and 8 in 2021.

Practically, events like this could have disastrous consequences with unannounced launches posing a risk to aircraft and ships, but also to majorly populated areas if it were to fall short of its target in the sea. However, symbolically, it can have even greater consequences as this is a major violation of Japan’s sovereignty, considering North Korea normally conducts tests in waters off the Korean Peninsula – the path of the missile was not an accident.

The jump from conventional missiles to nuclear arms is also not as big as some might think. Kim Jong-un is determined to develop the country’s nuclear arsenal as part of a large modernisation program. South Korean officials have been warning of the country preparing for a test since May. When in conversation with CNN, Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, highlighted that they are “trying to outrun South Korea in an arms race and drive wedges among US allies”.

In 2017, a similar missile was tested by North Korea leading to Donald Trump sending B-1B supersonic bombers close to the country. This resulted in another escalation in the form of an intercontinental ballistic missile by Kim Jong-un - one which had the potential to deliver a nuclear warhead to the US. Whilst we are not currently in circumstances similar to the Cold War, and the political climate has changed significantly since 2017, the potential testing and therefore use of nuclear weapons needs to be taken seriously. Fanciful plans for establishing a society in a post-nuclear war world may have been drawn up during the dark days of the Cold War, but they are nothing but a dream. The use of such weapons would wipe out the economy, all infrastructure, and medical facilities and bring an end to society as we know it - as the global order would change forever. These are far from conventional weapons and Pyongyang is fully aware of this. The US has put forward a new UN resolution which would impose sanctions on intercontinental ballistic missile tests for North Korea, but this was vetoed by Russia and China. This has a grave implication. If these weapons cannot be restricted, it is unlikely that nuclear restrictions would pass.

War in Europe was not expected within my lifetime, so we must not underestimate the significance of these tests and what experiments they could lead to, where nuclear weapons are concerned. We may have a less volatile President in the Whitehouse, but nuclear threats from Vladimir Putin towards Ukraine and the growing economic power of China mean Pyongyang is looking to establish itself as a dominant player, alongside Moscow and Beijing and it sees nuclear weapons as the way to do this in a turbulent economic climate.

Image: Flickr/ van huy nguyen



bottom of page