North Korea nuclear warning: No doubt Kim is beefing up arsenal after latest launches

North Korea: Expert on nuclear and military capabilities

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Cristina Varriale also suggested the Hermit State’s Supreme Leader was also taking the opportunity to flex his muscles as he prepares to celebrate the tenth anniversary of him becoming General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. On Sunday North Korea tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile for the first time since 2017 in what was its seventh test in the last month. 

Pyongyang subsequently released an unusual picture which it claimed had been taken from the Hwasong-12 projectile showing the view from space, specifically parts of the Korean peninsula and surrounding areas.

Officials of both the US and South Korea claimed the launch could be a step toward a full resumption of longest-range missile or nuclear weapon testing.

Ms Varriale, a Research Fellow, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) said: “It is very reasonable to think that North Korea’s nuclear programme is ongoing.

“Although we haven’t seen things like nuclear tests taking place in recent years (the last one being in 2017), that doesn’t mean the programme isn’t active.”

She added: “Although recent years have seen far fewer missile tests than four or five years ago, that shouldn’t be equated to the DPRK rolling back or pausing its missile programme.

“Instead, it is likely that the ongoing work has been at a lower level, for example lab based, and therefore not as obvious as other aspects of ongoing development such as testing.”

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Asked about recent events, she explained: “I think there are probably a few reasons for the recent flurry. Testing now makes sense for the North Korean development timetable; all those lower level, less visible activities are now at a stage ready for testing.”

Furthermore, there were also likely to be political motives, Ms Varriale stressed.

She said: “Kim Jong-un is celebrating his tenth year as leader, and after a challenging two years domestically as a result of COVID, flooding/extreme weather, ongoing economic issues, missile tests now are a way of signalling internally regime successes and that military strength will continue to be a core component of the regime.

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“What better way to demonstrate a successful first decade in power than testing some new missile capabilities at the start of the next?”

Furthermore, she added: “There are also upcoming presidential elections in South Korea, and North Korea has a tendency of increasing its belligerency in the run up to elections as a way of testing the candidates.”

Regardless of his motives, Ms Varriale emphasised that the world should not be under any illusions about Kim’s ongoing commitment to his weapons programme.

She said: “We should be in no doubt that North Korea has nuclear weapons. These recent tests are focusing on diversifying the missile systems that can deliver nuclear weapons and reduce the vulnerability of the arsenal.”

Asked in what circumstances Kim would consider using his arsenal, Ms Varriale said: “North Korea’s nuclear weapons are designed to contribute to ensuring the survival of the regime.

“If there is a circumstance under which the survival of the regime is perceived to be under immediate threat, there is a risk of nuclear weapons use. However, I think the biggest risk here is one of miscalculation or misinterpretation of events.”

Meanwhile Dr James Hoare, a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, said: “The lead up to Kim Jong-il’s birthday in February probably has played a part – according to the official accounts, he would have been 80 this year.

“An advanced rocket launch also demonstrates that Kim is advancing his country’s military capability.

Things may be bad (floods, sanctions etc) but we are still a powerful nation – a bit like a certain Prime Minister and Ukraine.”

Dr Hoare added: “It also sends a signal to the US, which seems to have rather lost interest in North Korea, and it also sends a signal to South Korea in advance of the presidential election in March – don’t think you can put pressure on us.

“Plus I suspect they need to make sure that the stuff they build actually works.”

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