North Korea on Saturday released photos of its leader Kim Jong-un conducting an on-site inspection of the regime’s test-firing of a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile, revealing new details about its dangerous missile game that continues to heighten tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
According to Pyongyang’s state media Korean Central News Agency, the missile was launched from Pyongyang International Airport on Friday. The missile flew 999.2 kilometers in one hour, eight minutes and 55 seconds at an apogee of 6,040.9 kilometers before landing in the international waters of the East Sea.
The KCNA touted the test-firing as proof of “the reliability of the new major strategic weapon system” and blamed the recent large-scale military drills jointly carried out by South Korea and the US as a reason for its saber-rattling.
What caught the attention of North Korea watchers are the photos showing Kim together with his daughter in a white winter jacket. In one photo, Kim can be seen walking with his daughter against the backdrop of the missile and its launch truck. It is the first time that Kim’s “beloved daughter” has appeared in the North Korean media.
Experts have speculated as to why photos of Kim’s daughter were disclosed at this point. It may have to do with the confidence of Kim in connection with the visible progress being made in test-firing the ICBM as well as a sign of encouragement for the scientists and engineers who enhanced the reliability of the deadly weapons. Some experts floated the idea that the new photos are an indication that North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons program will be a long-term project that can be handed over to Kim’s future successors.
Aside from a specific reason for revealing Kim’s daughter, it is truly alarming for both South Korean and US security officials that North Korea is moving forward with its missile development program, especially the ICBM.
Unlike other missiles with limited ranges, the Hwasong-17 is reportedly capable of carrying multiple warheads with a range of around 15,000 kilometers, enough to reach the entire US mainland.
North Korea also test-fired the Hwasong-17 on Nov. 3, but it ended up failing to fly as intended. The latest test-fire, however, is largely seen as major progress, even though it is not clear whether North Korea has secured the full warhead technologies for the ICBM.
For Kim, such advance in its ICBM technology that can strike the US mainland in theory is closely linked with his threat-based strategy to ensure the regime’s survival. The KCNA, for instance, quoted Kim as saying that the launch of the ICBM has reaffirmed his regime’s acquisition of a powerful and reliable capability to counter any nuclear threats. “If the enemies continue to pose threats to the DPRK, frequently introducing nuclear strike means, our Party and government will resolutely react to nukes with nuclear weapons,” Kim said, referring to the country's formal name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Another significant revelation made Saturday is that North Korea officially mentioned the existence of Pyongyang’s military units in charge of ICBM operations -- a reflection of the military attention and resources being channeled to the units.
In response to the ICBM test launch, South Korea held a joint air drill with the US on Saturday, involving the sortie of a US B-1B Lancer strategic bomber, escorted by South Korea’s F-35A jets and US F-16 fighters.
Such joint drills as well as a close monitoring of North Korea’s military actions, however, are not enough, given that North Korea is now doing whatever it can to push for the missile project, and China and Russia make it hard to put UN sanctions on the militaristic regime for missile-related moves.
For instance, North Korea stole $620 million worth of cryptocurrency funds by hacking into a game company in March -- a single act that could cover the cost of over 30 ballistic missiles that were test-launched in the first half of this year. While strengthening deterrence against the North’s threats, South Korea should work closely with allies to stop Pyongyang’s illicit attempts to secure the funds for its menacing missile program.