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(News Focus) NK missile frenzy highlights ‘go it alone’ drive for weapons buildup: analysts

SEOUL, Jan. 31 (Yonhap) — North Korea’s weekend launch of an “intermediate and long-range” ballistic missile underscores the hardliner regime’s declared weapons buildup in progress under a “go to war” approach. alone” and his enthusiasm for reinforcing internal solidarity. ahead of key political events, analysts here said on Monday.

In its seventh show of force this year, Pyongyang launched the Hwasong 12-type missile on Sunday, just days before the Beijing Olympics and despite proposals for dialogue from Seoul and Washington.

The latest launch came as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un apparently intends to stoke national pride ahead of major holidays: his late father Kim Jong-il’s 80th birthday on February 16 and the his late father’s 110th birthday. grandfather Kim Il-sung on April 15, analysts said.

The North’s saber rattling has been a disturbing setback for Seoul as it struggles to salvage its fragile peace campaign, Washington worried about tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and Beijing setting the stage for the successful staging of the Winter Olympics that will start on Friday.

“It appears that the North is moving according to its own timelines for its weapons development projects tabled at the ruling party’s eighth congress last year and for its major political events,” a security expert said on condition of anonymity. “Internal factors seem to have a lot of influence on their course of action.”

Amid a prolonged deadlock in nuclear talks with the United States, North Korea has been doubling down on the five high-risk defense projects it presented at the ruling Workers’ Party’s eighth congress in January last year.

Projects include the development of a hypersonic warhead, increasing the “hit rates” of missiles with a range of 15,000 kilometers, the production of a “super-large” nuclear warhead, and the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) using a ‘subterranean or terrestrial solid fuel’. motor.”

At the congress, the North also emphasized the need to develop tactical nuclear weapons and secure a nuclear-powered submarine and a strategic nuclear weapon capable of being launched underwater, as it criticized the “US military threat.”

Evidence has been mounting that the North has been trying to pull off those projects.

Sunday’s launch of what the South Korean military classifies as an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) could be part of efforts to improve a longer-range missile’s accuracy and atmospheric reentry technology, and develop a vehicle capable of delivering a tactical nuclear weapon. experts said.

The North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) stressed on Monday that the Hwasong-12 missile is “being produced and deployed,” an indication that it has completed its operational deployment following its 2017 claim. having completed its development.

The KCNA also published images of its liftoff from a mobile launcher and flight during the boost phase, as well as those of the Earth taken in space. The images appear to have been taken by drones and a camera installed on the payload.

Pyongyang also conducted self-proclaimed hypersonic missile tests on January 5 and 11, following the first such test last September.

“Through the development of weapons, the North seems to have raised the morale of its people when the country as a whole is dealing with worsening economic difficulties amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” the security expert said.

“It’s a typical pattern where the North highlights external threats to bolster internal cohesion, engages in provocations, and then uses subsequent international sanctions to highlight external threats,” he added.

North Korea’s apparent move toward brinkmanship comes in the run-up to the country’s major holidays, when there is an apparent political imperative for the regime to instill a sense of pride in its citizens struggling with worsening economic woes. .

“Pyongyang also wants to boost national pride as it prepares to celebrate political anniversaries against the backdrop of economic struggles,” said Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University.

Internal factors have emerged as a crucial variable in analyzing the motives behind the North’s weapons tests, as a host of external elements, including the Beijing Games, were expected to deter Pyongyang’s military moves.

This month, North Korea carried out four known rounds of missile tests at sites near the Chinese border, although it may be aware that Beijing does not want the launches to overshadow the Olympics, especially after the US diplomatic boycott of the event. .

In particular, the move is a violation of UN Security Council resolutions that ban any launch using ballistic missile technology, which would force China to join the global move to consider or implement further punitive measures against its neighbor. .

Observers said the launches near the border could indicate possible friction by the North with its backer, China, or Beijing’s acceptance of the weapons tests.

The North’s missile-testing frenzy has also perplexed some analysts who had thought Pyongyang might take a wait-and-see stance for now, as the ruling party’s year-end plenum sent no particular message. to Seoul and Washington while focusing on chronic foods. scarcity and other domestic problems.

The provocative mode is seen as an ominous sign that North Korea could further escalate tensions with more powerful weapons tests, as it issued a thinly veiled threat on January 20 to lift a voluntary moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. intercontinental ballistic missiles declared in April 2018.

Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, said the test of the latest IRBM potentially capable of delivering a tactical nuclear warhead could mark the culmination of the North’s decades-long quest for nuclear weapons.

“Nuclear-tipped IRBMs and other missiles could hold South Korea, Japan, and even Guam hostage, and lead to a situation where the elimination of such tactical weapons becomes impossible, meaning the North cannot prevent be seen as a de facto nuclear power. Park said.

“Then would come the next stage of nuclear weapons restrictions (between the US and the North) instead of the denuclearization of the North,” he added.

For South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the North’s escalating military actions deal a major blow to his peace initiative in which he has invested a lot of political capital.

But those actions could have served as a sobering reminder for the Joe Biden administration, whose repeated offers of dialogue with the North began to be taken with a grain of salt or dismissed as superficial, observers noted.

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