(CNN) — Tensions are rising on the Korean peninsula as the United States and its allies respond to North Korea’s recent series of missile tests, including one that flew over neighboring Japan without warning.
North Korea has fired six missiles in the past two weeks, a prolific number, even in a year that has seen the highest number of launches since leader Kim Jong Un took power in 2011.
The aggressive ramp-up in weapons tests has raised alarm in the region, with the United States, South Korea and Japan responding with missile launches and joint military exercises this week. The United States has also moved an aircraft carrier into waters near the peninsula, a move South Korean officials called “highly unusual.”
International leaders are now watching for signs of further escalation, such as a possible nuclear test, which would be the first of the hermetic nation in almost five years, a move that would represent a new foreign policy crisis for the president of the United States, Joe Biden.
Here’s what you need to know about North Korea’s drive to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles, why they’re on the rise now, and what, if anything, the US can do to counter Kim Jong Un. .
First, a bit of context
The tests themselves are not new: North Korea’s weapons development program has been ongoing for years.
Tensions reached near-crisis levels in 2017 when North Korea launched 23 missiles throughout the year, including two over Japan, in addition to conducting a nuclear test. The tests showed weapons powerful enough to put most of the world within range, including the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Relations thawed in 2018, when then-US President Donald Trump held a historic summit with Kim. The two leaders “fell in love,” Trump said; in return, Kim praised their “special” relationship. North Korea has vowed to freeze missile launches and apparently destroyed several facilities at the nuclear test site, while the United States has called off large-scale military exercises with South Korea and other regional allies.
But the talks ultimately fell apart, and hopes for a deal that would see the North scale back its nuclear ambitions dimmed at the end of Trump’s term.
Then came the covid-19 pandemic, pushing North Korea further into isolation. The already impoverished country sealed its borders completely, and foreign diplomats and aid workers poured out. During this time, the number of missile launches also remained low: just four in 2020 and eight in 2021.
So why are they increasing now?
Experts say there are a few reasons North Korea is speeding up its tests right now.
First of all, it could just be the right time after the events of the past few years, with Kim declaring victory against covid in August and the presence of a new US administration that has focused on showing unity with Korea. from the south.
“They haven’t been able to test for quite a few years due to political considerations, so I guess North Korean engineers and generals will be very anxious to make sure their toys work well,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Korea’s Kookmin University. from the south.
Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said it’s also normal for North Korea to stop testing during the stormy summer and resume once the weather improves in the fall.
But according to several experts, Kim may also be sending a message by deliberately displaying North Korea’s arsenal during a period of heightened global conflict.
“They want to remind the world that they should not be ignored, that they exist and that their engineers are working day and night to develop nuclear weapons and delivery systems,” Lankov said.
Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii, echoed this thought. Kim “launches missiles to draw attention to himself, but also to create pressure for Japan and the United States to confront him,” he said.
He added that North Korea might also feel emboldened to act now while the West is distracted by the war in Ukraine.
“(The missile tests) started in January, which is when we started reporting on what Russian President Vladimir Putin was doing in the face of Ukraine,” Schuster said. “Kim Jong Un is doing what he thinks he can do: he doesn’t expect any kind of strong reaction from the United States.”
Lankov said the Russian invasion of Ukraine may also have boosted Kim’s confidence because “it showed that if you have nuclear weapons, you can have almost impunity. And if you don’t have nukes, you’re in trouble.”
What can the United States and its allies do to stop North Korea?
Despite the swift military response by the United States and its allies last week, experts say there is little they can do to stop or prepare for North Korea’s weapons tests.
“The Americans sent the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan. The South Koreans are launching these missiles, which don’t necessarily work well,” Lankov said, referring to a South Korean missile on Wednesday that crashed just after launch. “What is the impact of all these US aircraft carriers sailing through Korea? Virtually none.
While these shows of force might serve to deter North Korea from “starting a war” (which is probably not Kim’s plan, anyway), it does little to prevent further weapons development or missile testing. said.
“It will probably make some people in the US and (South Korea) a little bit happier, but it won’t have any impact on North Korean behavior and decision-making.”
The lack of hard intelligence also means the US is largely in the dark when it comes to Kim’s plans.
North Korea lacks the widespread use of technology that not only facilitates economic and social advances, but also provides critical windows and opportunities for intelligence for the US and its allies.
“Since so much of what North Korea does is driven by the leader himself, you really have to get inside his head, and that’s a tough intelligence problem,” said Chris Johnstone, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. .
And on the international stage, US efforts to punish North Korea have failed due to pushback from Moscow and Beijing.
In May, Russia and China vetoed a US-drafted UN resolution to strengthen sanctions against North Korea over its weapons tests, the first time either country has blocked a sanctions vote against North Korea. since 2006.
What is North Korea trying to achieve?
Kim has spearheaded an aggressive weapons development program that far exceeded the efforts of his father and grandfather, both former North Korean leaders, and experts say the country’s nuclear program is at the heart of Kim’s ambitions.
In September, North Korea passed a law declaring itself a nuclear weapons state, with Kim vowing to “never give up” those weapons.
The law also demonstrated North Korea’s hopes of strengthening its ties with China and Russia, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul.
After China and Russia’s outspoken opposition to new sanctions against North Korea, Kim “knows he has their back,” Schuster said.
He added that Kim’s weapons tests serve a dual purpose: in addition to making a statement to the international community, it also boosts his own image domestically and consolidates the power of the regime.
“It’s a very paranoid regime — (Kim) is as concerned about the people under him as he is about regime change from abroad,” Schuster said. With the evidence, Kim is telling his own high-level people: “We can deal with any threat that the West, the United States and South Korea come up with,” he said.
However, in terms of broader public perception, KCNA, North Korea’s state media outlet, has not mentioned the missile launches for months, since its last report of a launch in March.
Lewis, the Middlebury Institute expert, added that North Korea is likely to continue developing weapons such as ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles until “they get to a point where they’re satisfied with that, then I think they’ll probably express an interest in talking.” again”.
Is a nuclear test coming?
The short-term concern is that North Korea will conduct a nuclear test, which Lewis says could happen “at any time.”
However, both Schuster and Lankov said that given the friendly relationship between North Korea and China, Kim might wait until China holds its Communist Party Congress later this month, if the test ever comes to pass.
The meeting of the party elite is the most important event on the Chinese political calendar, especially this year, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to be appointed to a third term in power, further cementing his status as the leader. most powerful Chinese in decades.
Kim “relies too heavily on Chinese aid to keep his country afloat,” meaning he can’t afford to “do anything to detract from the Party Congress,” Schuster said. “So even though China can’t dictate to him what he should do… he won’t cause any trouble for them.”
After October, however, the runway is clear for any more significant weapons tests, Lankov said.
South Korean and US officials have warned since May that North Korea may be preparing for a nuclear test, with satellite images showing activity at its underground test site.
CNN’s Brad Lendon, Kevin Liptak, Katie Bo Lillis, Phil Mattingly and Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.