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 off an array of weapons as experts warn of a possible nuclear test on the horizon.
While the tests themselves are not new, their high frequency marks a significant escalation that has set the Pacific region on course.
“The big thing about 2022 is that the word ‘test’ is no longer appropriate to talk about most of North Korea’s missile launches – they are hardly testing missiles these days,” said nuclear policy expert Ankit Panda. from 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 attention-grabbing tests also threaten to start an arms race in Asia, with nearby countries building up their militaries and the United States vowing to defend South Korea and Japan with “the full range of capabilities, including nuclear.”
Here’s a look back at a year of guns and warnings, and what could come next.
Of North Korea’s more than 270 missile launches and nuclear tests since 1984, more than a quarter occurred this year, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Missile Defense Project.
Of that total, more than three-quarters were recorded after Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, reflecting the dictator’s ambitions, which he has made no secret of, vowing in April to develop the country’s nuclear forces at the “highest possible” speed.
That lofty goal was reflected in a flurry of tests, with North Korea firing missiles on 36 days this year, according to a CNN count.
“For missiles, they set daily, monthly and yearly records,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Asian Studies.
Most of these tests were cruise and ballistic missiles. Cruise missiles stay within 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 has also fired surface-to-air missiles and hypersonic missiles.
“North Korea is literally becoming a prominent operator of large-scale missile forces,” Panda said. He pointed to recent cases in which North Korea fired missiles in response to military exercises or diplomatic talks by the United States and its regional allies, adding: “Whatever the US and South Korea will do, North Korea can demonstrate proportionally that he has capacities to maintain it. up too.”
Among the ballistic missiles tested was the Hwasong-12, which traveled more than 4,500 kilometers (about 2,800 miles) in October, 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 these distances into context, the US island territory of Guam is only 3,380 kilometers (2,100 miles) from North Korea.
But one weapon in particular has drawn international attention: the Hwasong-17, North Korea’s most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) to date. It could theoretically reach the North American continent, 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, US and South Korean 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 warning afterwards that the country would take “more offensive” actions in response to “enemies who seek to destroy peace and stability in the Korean peninsula and region.”
Since the beginning of the year, US and international observers have warned that North Korea appears to be preparing for an underground nuclear test, which would be its first since 2017.
Satellite images have shown new activity at North Korea’s nuclear test site, where the country has previously conducted six underground nuclear tests. It claimed its most recent test was a hydrogen bomb, the most powerful weapon Pyongyang has ever tested.
That 2017 nuclear test had an estimated yield of 160 kilotons, a measure of how much energy the explosion releases.
By comparison, the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan produced only 15 and 21 kilotons respectively. The US and Russia have conducted the most explosive tests in history, with a yield of more than 10,000 kilotons.
It is unclear exactly how many nuclear weapons North Korea has. Experts at the Federation of American Scientists estimate that it may have assembled 20 to 30 nuclear warheads, but its ability to detonate them accurately on the battlefield is unproven.
While there had once been hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough in 2019 following major meetings between Kim and then-US President Donald Trump, they were dashed after the two leaders left without arriving to any formal denuclearization agreement.
US-North Korean relations have plummeted since then, with Kim in 2021 announcing a sweeping five-year plan to modernize the North’s military, including the development of hypersonic weapons and a nuclear-powered submarine.
This year is an extension of that vision, with North Korea working 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 may have felt empowered to act while 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 acceleration in weapons testing has raised alarm in the region, drawing its exposed neighbors Japan and South Korea closer to Western partners.
The United States, South Korea and Japan have held a series of joint exercises and fired their own missiles in response to Pyongyang’s tests. The United States stepped up its presence in the region, redeploying an aircraft carrier to waters near the peninsula and sending top-line stealth fighter jets to South Korea for training. Meanwhile, the Quad countries – a grouping of the United States, India, Japan and Australia – have deepened military cooperation, with their leaders meeting in May.
Individual governments have also taken dramatic steps, with Japan saying it will double its defense spending, the pacifist nation’s biggest military build-up since World War II.
But experts have warned that such rapid militarization could fuel instability across the region. And there is no clear end in sight; The U.S. and South Korea are planning more joint exercises in the spring, which could prompt North Korea to continue testing “just to show its discomfort,” Klingner said.
He added that negotiations are unlikely until Kim has further developed his weapons, when “in his mind, he would come back to the table in a position of strength.”
“Each of the lanes on the road, they’ve been improving their capabilities, both nuclear and missile,” he said. “It’s all very, very worrying.”