Seoul, South Korea
In 2020, North Korea conducted four missile tests. In 2021, it doubled that number. In 2022, the isolated nation fired more missiles than any other year on record, at one point launching 23 missiles in a single day.
North Korea has fired more than 90 cruise and ballistic missiles so far this year, showing a range of weapons as experts warn of a potential nuclear test on the horizon.
While the tests themselves aren’t new, their very frequency marks a significant escalation that has the Pacific region on edge.
“The great thing about 2022 is that the word ‘test’ is no longer appropriate to talk about most North Korean missile launches – they barely test missiles these days,” said Ankit Panda, nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. . “Everything we’ve seen this year suggests that Kim Jong Un is very serious about using nuclear capabilities early in a conflict if necessary.”
The eye-catching tests also threaten to spark an arms race in Asia, with neighboring countries beefing up their militaries and the United States promising to defend South Korea and Japan with “the full range of capabilities, including nuclear.”
Here’s a look back at a year of weapons and warnings – and what might come next.
Of more than 270 missile launches and nuclear tests by North Korea since 1984, more than a quarter have taken place this year, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Missile Defense Project.
Of this total, more than three-quarters were recorded after Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, reflecting the dictator’s ambitions – which he made no secret of, promising in April to develop the country’s nuclear forces at the “highest possible” speed.
That lofty goal has translated into a flurry of testing, with North Korea firing missiles for 36 days this year, according to a CNN tally.
“For missiles, they set daily, monthly and annual records,” said Bruce Klingner, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Asian Studies.
The majority of these tests were cruise and ballistic missiles. Cruise missiles stay in the Earth’s atmosphere and are maneuverable with control surfaces, like an airplane, while ballistic missiles glide through space before re-entering the atmosphere.
Pyongyang also fired surface-to-air missiles and hypersonic missiles.
“North Korea is literally becoming a leading operator of large-scale missile forces,” Panda said. He pointed to recent instances where North Korea fired missiles in response to military exercises or diplomatic talks between the United States and its regional allies, adding, “Anything the United States and North Korea South will do, North Korea can proportionally demonstrate that it has the capabilities to keep as well.
Among the ballistic missiles tested was the Hwasong-12, which traveled more than 4,500 kilometers (about 2,800 miles) in October – flying over Japan, the first time North Korea had done so in five years. Another notable missile was the Hwasong-14, with an estimated range of over 10,000 kilometers (over 6,200 miles).
To put those distances into context, the US island territory of Guam is just 3,380 kilometers (2,100 miles) from North Korea.
But one particular weapon has captured international attention: the Hwasong-17, North Korea’s most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) to date. It could theoretically reach the continental United States – but there are still many unknowns about the missile’s ability to deliver a nuclear payload to the target.
North Korea claimed to have successfully launched the Hwasong-17 in March for the first time. However, South Korean and American experts believe the test may actually have been an older, less advanced missile.
The Hwasong-17 was tested again in November, according to North Korean state media, with Kim later warning that the country would take “more offensive” action in response to “enemies seeking to destroy peace and stability.” in the Korean peninsula and region”.
Since the beginning of this year, American and international observers have been warning that North Korea appears to be preparing for an underground nuclear test – which would be the first since 2017.
Satellite imagery has shown new activity at North Korea’s nuclear test site, where the country has already carried out six underground nuclear tests. He claimed his most recent test was a hydrogen bomb, the most powerful weapon Pyongyang has ever tested.
This 2017 nuclear test had an estimated yield of 160 kilotons, a measure of the amount of energy released by the explosion.
For comparison, the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan produced only 15 and 21 kilotons respectively. The United States and Russia carried out the most explosive tests in history, producing more than 10,000 kilotons.
It is unclear exactly how many nuclear weapons North Korea possesses. Experts from the Federation of American Scientists believe he may have assembled 20-30 nuclear warheads – but his ability to detonate them accurately on the battlefield has not been proven.
Although there were once hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough in 2019 after historic meetings between Kim and then US President Donald Trump, these were dashed after the two leaders walked away without concluding official denuclearization agreements.
Relations between the United States and North Korea have since collapsed, with Kim announcing in 2021 a vast five-year plan to modernize the North Korean army, including the development of hypersonic weapons and a submarine. nuclear powered.
This year is an extension of that vision, with North Korea striving to develop its own strategic nuclear deterrent as well as nuclear options in any conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
There are a few possible reasons why this year has been so active. Some experts say Kim might have felt empowered to act when the West was preoccupied with the war in Ukraine. Panda, the nuclear expert, added that tensions tend to flare when South Korea has a conservative government – which has been the case since May.
North Korea’s aggressive ramp-up in weapons testing has raised alarm in the region, bringing its exposed neighbors – Japan and South Korea – closer to their Western partners.
The United States, South Korea and Japan have held a number of joint exercises and fired their own missiles in response to Pyongyang’s tests. The United States has bolstered its presence in the region, redeploying an aircraft carrier to waters near the peninsula and sending high-end stealth fighter jets to South Korea for training. Meanwhile, the Quad nations – a grouping of the United States, India, Japan and Australia – have deepened their military cooperation, with their leaders meeting in May.
Individual governments have also taken dramatic steps, with Japan declaring it will double its defense spending, the pacifist nation’s biggest military boost since World War II.
But experts have warned that this rapid militarization could fuel instability in the region. And there is no clear end in sight; the United States and South Korea have planned more joint drills in the spring, which could lead North Korea to continue firing tests “just to show their displeasure,” Klingner said.
He added that negotiations are unlikely until Kim develops his weapons, when “in his mind he would come back to the table in a position of strength.”
“Every lane of the road they have upgraded their capabilities, both nuclear and missile,” he said. “This is all very, very worrying.”