North Korea sets new record for ballistic missile launches in 2022

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North Korea sets record for ballistic missile launches in 2022, raising global concern of another nuclear test

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has steered his country on a particularly destabilizing path this year, firing off a record number of missile tests after a period of relative quiet.

This acceleration has once again alarmed North Korea’s neighbors and international observers and sparked anxieties about the prospect of another nuclear test, which would be the reclusive nation’s first since 2017.

With much of the world focused on the war in Ukraine, Kim — who then-President Donald Trump dubbed “Little Rocket Man” over a missile-testing barrage in 2017 — has conducted two dozen successful ballistic missile tests in 2022 alone. Though the missiles carried no payloads, the launches violated United Nations resolutions intended to curb the country’s nuclear ambitions and capabilities.

In fact, Kim has now broken the record for missile tests he set back in 2017 when Kim and Trump were trading insults, according to a Grid review of data collected separately by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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The recent tests — and particularly a flurry of missiles fired off this month — have North Korea watchers wondering: What is Kim up to, and why is he doing it now?

Kim Jong Un’s game

As former CIA acting director John McLaughlin wrote recently for Grid, Kim has observed the deterrent power of such weapons. “Clearly, Kim sees these weapons as the best way to ensure regime survival in a world he regards as hostile,” McLaughlin said. “He has doubtless noted the vulnerability of states that either did give them up (see Libya — or Ukraine) or failed to acquire them (Iraq and Syria). Among other things, the arsenal he has built buys him some assurance that other countries will not attack his country.”

Some analysts believe that Kim has been observing the war in Ukraine and has drawn his own lessons about the deterrent effect of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine reinforces the North Korean leader’s belief that giving up their nuclear weapons would be dangerous to the regime’s security,” said Ellen Kim, a deputy director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

North Korea’s arsenal also helps the regime in what has been a long-running strategy of gaining economic concessions and assistance; Kim Jong Un might rattle the saber and frighten the region, and then win concessions in exchange for ending the provocations.

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McLaughlin and others have also noted a family dynamic that may have influenced the current regime.

“Kim lacked the experience or charisma of his father and grandfather, who led the nation before him,” he said. “Kim needed something more to lock in his authority and prove his ability to lead and protect the country. That ‘something more’ turned out to be an unrelenting push for advances in the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.”

The recent tests

This year, the North Korean regime has focused almost exclusively on launching shorter-range missiles capable of hitting targets within a few hundred miles. They have all splashed harmlessly into the East Sea or Sea of Japan.

Earlier this month, though, North Korea fired a long-range missile over Japan for the first time in five years, sparking widespread fear and sending many Japanese citizens into air raid shelters. The missile traveled roughly 2,800 miles and peaked at about 600 miles above the earth before landing safely in the Pacific Ocean.

The launch over Japanese territory drew a particularly forceful condemnation from the United Nations.

“This was a reckless act and a clear violation of relevant Security Council resolutions,” said Khaled Khiari, assistant secretary-general at the U.N. “This launch risks triggering a significant escalation of tensions in the region and beyond.”

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Analysts believe the North’s recent focus on shorter-range missiles — which are newer and contain solid fuel, allowing them to be stored and moved more easily and deployed more quickly — could be an effort to demonstrate that the regime has boosted its conventional military abilities, particularly against rival South Korea.

The history

Though the North and South share a common ethnic background and language, they’ve been split by a tense east-west border since World War II, a separation solidified by the Korean War. That bloody conflict, which is still technically unsettled, has prompted decades of tension and worries about another armed conflict.

South Korea is now one of the world’s largest economies and a thriving democracy, while the North remains an impoverished dictatorship that remains isolated from the world in part because of its illicit pursuit of a nuclear weapons program.

Since the end of the Korean War, the North has engaged in scores of provocations, such as artillery fire, territorial incursions and other incidents. But it has ramped up its pursuit of nuclear weapons and especially the missiles needed to deliver them in the last decade, since Kim Jong Un — the grandson of North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung — came to power in December 2011.


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Since then, the regime has conducted more than 120 ballistic missile tests in violation of international resolutions, including some involving intercontinental devices that, in theory, could reach the continental United States.

The nuclear fears

The U.S. Army estimated in 2020 that North Korea had between 20 and 60 nuclear weapons. It remains unclear whether the country is capable of deploying them via long-range missiles, which have been launched from various locations over the years as the country’s capabilities have evolved and improved.

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North Korea conducted a half dozen nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017 — steadily increasing the potency of the detonations. The earliest test was believed to have a yield of 2 kilotons; by the 2017 test, the figure was estimated at 250 kilotons — roughly 16 times the power of the bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The force of the blast caused an earthquake near the testing site that was measured at 6.3 on the Richter scale.

A historic 2018 summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore cooled tensions, but North Korea ramped up its missile testing again in 2019. There was a lull following the covid outbreak; this year, the frequency of the tests ramped up to those record levels.

Experts who study the Korean peninsula are now worried about another nuclear detonation by the North at its Punggye-ri testing site, where observers have noticed recent preparations.

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“We have satellite imagery that all the preparations are done,” Ellen Kim told Grid. “We’re waiting for North Korea, whether they are going to do their nuclear test or not.”

As for Kim Jong Un, he has long shown a propensity for keeping the world guessing. But he has said repeatedly that North Korea stands ready, as he put it this summer, “to deploy the country’s nuclear deterrent.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley and Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Matt Stiles
    Matt Stiles

    Senior Data Visualization Reporter

    Matt Stiles is the senior data visualization reporter for Grid.