North Korea is now in a league of its own for missile proliferation

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By John J. Metzler, December 24, 2023

There they go again! North Korea’s reclusive communist regime ended the year with a provocative intercontinental ballistic launch, flying near Japan and splashing down in the Pacific.

The ominous firing of a powerful Hwasong-18 rocket came a month after Pyongyang put a spy satellite into orbit.

The latest intercontinental launch, the 5th this year, along with over 25 other ballistic missiles, plus three satellite firings using ballistic missile technology, places the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), in a league of its own for missile proliferation.

These launches send the undeniably menacing message that the DPRK intends to hide in the shadows of the Ukraine and Gaza Wars and develop its offensive military capacity, to bully nearby South Korea and Japan, and to set the political template that North Korea remains a nuclear power.

The North Korean government shows what it says is a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile from an undisclosed location in North Korea in this photo released on Dec. 19. / KCNA

Pyongyang thumbs its nose at the international community despite multiple UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting these actions.

During a Security Council meeting following the latest launches, a Joint Statement on North Korea’s proliferation warned, “We condemn, in the strongest terms, the DPRK’s Dec. 17 ICBM launch and those before it.  Because we cannot become inured to this behavior. We cannot turn a blind eye to the DPRK’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, or for that matter, its malicious cyber activity and flagrant human rights violations and abuses.”

The Statement added sternly, “Council silence sends the wrong message to Pyongyang and all proliferators.”

UN Sec. Gen. António Guterres has strongly condemned the launch and urged the DPRK to fully comply with its international obligations under Security Council resolutions.

Related: North Korea fires 10th ICBM, 3 days after ‘strategic’ huddle in Beijing, December 19, 2023

Thus while nine Council members including the United States, France, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom called for restraint, the glaring political reality remains that China and Russia, two Council members holding the powerful veto, remain committed to their comrade the DPRK as a disrupter of East Asia’s status quo.

Significantly, South Korea’s Amb. Joonkook Hwang voiced his deep concern that the Council is “locked in a stalemate and being ridiculed by the DPRK.”

The Council’s Statement added, “While we urge the DPRK to abandon its unlawful WMD and ballistic missile programs, and instead invest in feeding the people in North Korea, we also urge the Security Council, every member of the Security Council, to exercise its responsibility and overcome its prolonged silence.”

Diplomats added hopefully, “We encourage the DPRK to engage in diplomacy…and help the North Korean people suffering from food insecurity and a lack of basic humanitarian goods.”

That’s wishful thinking. As this column has long asserted, the Pyongyang leadership has long favored neutrons for the regime over nutrition for its own people as a state policy.

DPRK proliferation is sadly nothing new; In fact, it’s been dangerously expanding in the past three years.  While the Security Council now almost ritualistically condemns the launches, it’s time to ask a few obvious questions.

First; Pyongyang communists want a “deterrent” to guarantee regime survival. Speaking at the Council briefing, DPRK Delegate Song Kim said that the latest intercontinental ballistic missile launch by Pyongyang is a “warning countermeasure.”  In a rash and reckless statement, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un said the firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile demonstrated his commitment not to hesitate to launch a nuclear attack in the event of nuclear provocations from the enemy.

U.S. Deputy Amb. Robert Wood stressed before the Council, “Meanwhile, the DPRK itself announced it is undertaking not defensive countermeasures, but offensive ones. No claim by the DPRK can repudiate that fact.”

Second; As UN Assistant Sec. Gen. Khaled Khiari stated, “The launch of yet another ICBM is of serious concern…regrettably the DPRK did once again not issue any airspace or maritime safety notifications.  The unannounced launches represent a serious risk to international civil aviation and maritime traffic.” Air traffic corridors around Japan and South Korea are densely packed with civilian flights. It’s just a question of time and bad luck before a missile returning to the sea near the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido could accidentally hit a passenger aircraft causing civilian carnage.

Third; The firings of these long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles pose a clear and present danger to East Asia and equally to the continental United States. And this is okay? Though the missiles are not carrying warheads, what if they were? Let’s get real, what is the ultimate purpose of these rockets? Clearly, they are offensive military weapons of mass destruction, not Pyongyang’s pyrotechnic displays to woo the world with the power of the Kim Dynasty.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]