North Korea Signals a Seventh Nuclear Weapon Test Is Next

The country’s Korean Central News Agency gave this clear impression in a commentary boasting of the test-firing of its new Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile.

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, center, near what North Korea says is a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile March 24, 2022.  Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

WASHINGTON — Another nuclear test might be next on the North Korean leader’s agenda.

The country’s Korean Central News Agency gave this clear impression Friday in a commentary boasting of the test-firing of its new Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile. The propaganda outlet called the missile “a reliable means for deterring a nuclear war” amid “the lasting confrontation with US imperialism.”

The 1,100-word KCNA report, in English as well as Korean, was accompanied by photos of the dictator,  Kim Jong-un, writing and signing the order to conduct the test. It used the word nuclear 13 times, perhaps early justification for what would be the North’s seventh nuclear test.

The Hwasong-17, launched Thursday from a site near Pyongyang, “operates according to the plan of building the state nuclear force,” said KCNA. It would “readily perform its mission and duty as a powerful nuclear war deterrent thoroughly controlling the nuclear war threats and challenges to the DPRK” — the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The KCNA dispatch, in addition to confirming that the missile was indeed a Hwasong-17, was brimming with florid language reserved for the most momentous events. The article celebrated the success of a missile launch that followed a failure the previous week. That missile exploded about 12 miles above ground, plunging to earth within sight of witnesses in Pyongyang.

KCNA called the successful missile test “another miraculous victory” and praised “the great Korean people” for having “unconditionally supported” the need for “nuclear force building with one mind and purpose for the security of the country and the lasting peace of all generations despite all difficulties.”

Amid all the colorful verbiage, the dispatch neglected to mention that the latest test ended a lengthy moratorium: North Korea last conducted an ICBM test in November 2017 and its sixth underground nuclear test two months earlier.

Thursday’s test, however, left no doubt that Mr. Kim would count on his program of fabricating nuclear warheads and the missiles for carrying them to distant targets in a campaign of intimidating America and its northeast Asia allies.

North Korea is not yet believed capable of miniaturizing a warhead to fit on a missile, but experts are certain it’s on the way to achieving that goal. North Korea appears emboldened to conduct a nuclear test while Washington is focused on the war in Ukraine, where the Russian strongman, Vladimir Putin, has put his own nuclear forces on alert.

In this uncertain period, analysts warn of trouble ahead in the region.

“Now that North Korea has resumed its ICBM testing, the Biden administration must be ready for a flare-up on the Korean Peninsula even as Russian President Vladimir Putin causes bloodshed and threatens nuclear war in Ukraine,” the director for Korea at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, Sue Mi Terry, writes. “This could be the sleeper crisis of 2022. “

Ms. Terry, writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, warns the Russian invasion “will only redouble” Mr. Kim’s “determination to expand his nuclear arsenal.” Ukraine “gave up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union,” she notes, and Mr. Kim “no doubt figures that if Ukraine were still a nuclear power, Russia would not have dared to attack.”

For Mr. Kim, Ms. Terry writes, “Ukraine’s experience only reinforces the lessons that his fellow dictators in Iraq and Libya learned the hard way: countries that give up their nuclear weapons programs become vulnerable, and their leaders face serious risks of being overthrown and killed.”

The KCNA dispatch did not cite any of these examples, but the inference was unmistakable: “Steadfast are the strategic choice and determination of our Party and government to strengthen the powerful nuclear war deterrent both in quality and quantity and in a sustainable way for the security of the country and to cope with all crises in the future.”


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