Kim Jong-un challenges Biden with new missiles test.

Kim Jong-un is increasing the frequency of smaller-scale weapons provocations as the North Korean dictator upgrades his nuclear and chemical weapons arsenal and tests US president Joe Biden.

North Korea on Wednesday fired two ballistic missiles, South Korea’s military reported, just three days after Pyongyang claimed to have successfully tested new long-range cruise missiles, which could be used for firing nuclear warheads.

The military actions marked North Korea’s first serious missile tests in about six months. They follow last month’s warning from the International Atomic Energy Agency that the Kim regime had restarted a critical reactor at its biggest nuclear materials complex for the first time since 2018.

“Ever since North Korea cracked having nuclear warheads, they’ve been outfitting themselves with different ways of delivering them,” said Melissa Hanham, an affiliate at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

“This is typical of any state that achieves nuclear weapon status. Just as we saw with the US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, France and UK – they have multiple different ways of delivering nuclear warheads – North Korea is trying to do the same thing,” she added.

Mr Kim’s plans appeared to be calibrated to avoid a backlash from Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, experts said.

“While the Kim regime wants to pressure the United States for sanctions relief, it doesn’t want to isolate China and Russia because those governments currently stand in the way of strengthening sanctions,” said Leif-Eric Easley from Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

But the provocations have also raised questions over how the US president and its allies such as South Korea and Japan would respond to North Korean weapons tests that did not involve longer-range intercontinental ballistic missiles.

In March, Mr Biden played down the firing of short-range missiles. He signalled that a tougher response was not needed because the tests did not breach UN resolutions that banned Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technologies, noted Ankit Panda from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“They might be regretting that now, given that North Korea is testing an apparently nuclear-capable cruise missile . . . I think it would constitute a violation given that it is designed to carry nuclear weapons,” Mr Panda said.

Last October, Mr Kim unveiled the world’s largest mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.

Among the crucial areas international weapons experts are now tracking is new movements at a North Korean naval base, potentially related to its submarine development programme.

Ms Hanham pointed to “interesting activity” that has been spotted around the Sinpo naval shipyard, located on North Korea’s eastern coastline.

A team of researchers are still collecting and analysing satellite imagery captured over the site and have not yet concluded what the changes signify, she said.

Submarine fleets

The potential advances in North Korea’s naval technology come after Pyongyang in January showcased a new submarine-launched ballistic missile and Mr Kim outlined plans to boost the development of shorter-range “tactical” nuclear weapons, a new nuclear submarine and hypersonic missiles.

According to analysis by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a US-based non-proliferation advocacy group, North Korea has one of the world’s largest submarine fleets, with estimates of more than 80 vessels.

And advances in submarine capabilities are viewed as increasingly important in providing the Kim regime with more launch options as well as acting as “a hedge” against any attacks on their land-based nuclear systems.

Vipin Narang, a nuclear policy expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said as North Korea “matures as a nuclear weapons power it is likely seeking to develop capabilities that all ‘normal’ nuclear powers seek to augment”.

That includes boosting their “survivability” against the US by improving their diversity and quantity of weapons, and adding more mobility, including sea-based capabilities, he said.

On Tuesday, Sung Kim, Mr Biden’s envoy for North Korea, said that door the for talks with North Korea remained open.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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