China, or its ally Pakistan, likely passed the warhead design, or the warhead itself, to North Korea. China also contributed the transporter-erector-launcher truck used to transport North Korean missiles.
London: You can always tell when a baby is irritated—it starts throwing its toys out of the pram. Judging from the number of rockets flying out of North Korea in recent months, Pyongyang is very irritated indeed.
Last Tuesday, North Korea confirmed that it successfully tested a new submarine-launched ballistic missile “advanced control guidance technologies”, according to KCNA, its state news-outlet. North Korea has carried out a flurry of weapons tests in recent weeks, launching what it said were hypersonic and long-range weapons. As usual, Tuesday’s timing was carefully calculated to coincide with an important event in South Korea, in this case the opening of a major arms fair in Seoul. Tuesday also happened to be the day that Japan kicked off its election campaign ahead of the general elections on 31 October. Although Kim Jong-un’s North Korea is no friend of Tokyo, it’s Seoul which is primarily in Kim’s sights.
North Korea, of course, says its missiles are for self-defence, and has accused South Korea and the United States of threatening its safety with joint military drills, arms purchases and other hostile policies. During recent years, North Korea has surged ahead in an inter-Korean arms race that has led to a proliferation of short-range missiles on the peninsula and left Pyongyang closer than ever to deploying tactical nuclear weapons. In the wake of the country’s 2018 self-imposed moratorium on testing its larger intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea’s year-long quest to develop precision missiles capable of evading detection and striking targets in South Korea has accelerated.
Only a month ago, on 15 September, Pyongyang launched two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast, just two days after it tested a new long-range cruise missile capable of reaching targets in both Japan and South Korea. Hours later, it tested the new submarine-launched ballistic missile, making it one of only seven countries with this technology. These new missiles appear aimed at matching or surpassing South Korea’s quietly expanding arsenal, and are the continuation of tests since Kim Jong-un declared last January that the country could miniaturise nuclear warheads to fit on tactical weapons. Spy agencies have concluded that the latest missiles could in fact carry nuclear warheads, though it’s unclear whether they have ever been installed. Only weight is important and once the technology is mastered, nuclear warheads can be lighter than ordinary ones.
One particular characteristic of North Korea’s latest missiles is their ability for flying low and “pulling up” shortly before reaching their final target, making them harder to detect and intercept. If fielded, these short-range ballistic missiles would allow North Korea to strike specific targets within South Korea with a much higher degree of accuracy than the older variants.
But where did North Korea acquire all this technology? For many years, the US has been publicly pointing the finger at China, noting that the distinctive bionic warhead on the North Korean missile appears very similar to the Chinese technology on the warhead of Pakistan’s first surface-to-surface medium range ballistic missile, ABABEEL. In fact, China, or its ally Pakistan, likely passed the warhead design, or the warhead itself, to North Korea. China also contributed the transporter-erector-launcher truck used to transport North Korean missiles, claiming that its use was for timber transportation, a transparent excuse which allowed it to be exempt from UN sanction for exporting military equipment to North Korea.
The proximity of many North Korean missile launches, such as the 6,000-mile range Hwasong-14, which had its maiden flight on US Independence Day 2017, close to Chinese territory, is another indicator of Chinese involvement. Such proximity would ease the transport of equipment as well as involvement or monitoring by Chinese officials and engineers. Experts also believe that China is helping North Korea with sophisticated and critical heat and pressure testing of the warheads as they re-enter the atmosphere. China has a motive to assist North Korea’s nuclear missile development, which is to distract world attention from its own aggressive behaviour in places like the South and East China Seas. China can also use North Korea’s nuclear weapons as leverage for any negotiations with the US, Japan and South Korea.
North Korea’s latest launch comes as South Korea develops its own weapons, in what observers say has turned into an arms race on the Korean Peninsula. South Korean officials see bigger and better short-range ballistic missiles as a way to reduce their dependence on the US, which currently stations about 28,500 troops in the country. In a speech last year, South Korea’s Defence Minister, Jeong Kyeong-doo, boasted that it had developed a missile with “sufficient range and the world’s largest warhead weight to protect peace on the Korean Peninsula”, referring to the new Hyunmoo-4’s 800-kilometre range and 2-ton payload. Seoul appears committed to very large conventional warheads to target the hardened sites, prevalent in the North.
The curious thing while this tit-for-tat build-up of weapons gathers at pace, is that technically North and South Korea remain at war, as the Korean War, which split the peninsula into two countries and which saw the US backing the South, ended in 1953 with a simple armistice. Kim Jong-un said last week that he did not wish for war to break out again, and that his country needed to continue developing weapons for self-defence against enemies such as the US, which he accused of hostility.
The solution to this vexing problem lies not in inflating or ignoring it, but rather in thinking about it in an updated way. The US is not a unipolar power anymore. North Korea is no longer a nuclear aspirant, but rather a de-facto nuclear state. Kim three times met former US President Donald Trump, who boasted of stopping a war but failed to reach a comprehensive agreement on ending North Korea’s nuclear programme. Many observers believe that Kim took Trump for a fool, achieving great photo-ops without conceding anything. Joe Biden has merely promised to keep pursuing diplomacy in the quest for denuclearisation.
Pressure on the Kim regime has proven counterproductive on its own, and given the continued advance of its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, North Korea’s ability to threaten not only the South, but also US territory—and that of its allies—will only grow. Even if these weapons have not yet been perfected, the disclosure of their existence provides ample indication of intent. It’s only a matter of time until North Korea acquires the capability to reliably put these advanced weapons to practical use, even though that might seem like a fantasy for now. The denuclearisation “game” has become a part of North Korea’s national identity, but along with the potential consequences of China’s threats to Taiwan, it’s a dangerous game, one that could lead to dire outcomes.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.