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North Korea's ramped-up weapons testing is running through a 'to-do' list, US official says as it issues new warnings

Chris Panella   

North Korea's ramped-up weapons testing is running through a 'to-do' list, US official says as it issues new warnings
  • North Korea has ramped up weapons development and testing in recent years, going down a "to-do list," a US official said.
  • The priorities range from ballistic missile tests and underwater drone development to satellite capabilities.

North Korea has been ramping up its testing of weapons and important related systems, working through a "to-do list," a US official said, and it's causing some alarm among the US and its allies.

And with Russia becoming a closer partner, North Korea could be getting the help it needs to fill critical gaps in the development of key technologies, such as underwater drones and satellites.

"They have been doing a lot of weapons demonstrations," said US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Jung H. Pak at a Monday event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They've also, since January of 2021, said that they're going to do a whole series of tests and develop new technologies."

Of those, Pak referred to hypersonic systems, unmanned underwater vessels, solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles, and reconnaissance satellites. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un publicly vowed in 2021 to work to introduce these weapons to counter what he called growing US hostility in the region.

"They had a list, they had a to-do list, and they've been developing and testing those capabilities," Pak said.

The ramp-up in testing has probably been best demonstrated by its ballistic missile tests. In 2021, North Korea tested just eight missiles; in 2023, it tested 33. Missile testing frequently occurs in response to perceived provocations, such as joint military exercises between the US and South Korea, but they aren't strictly reactions.

On Monday, North Korea launched multiple short-range ballistic missiles into its eastern waters, South Korea reported.

And on Wednesday, state media said North Korea had successfully tested a solid-fuel engine for a new intermediate-range hypersonic missile, adding that Kim viewed the strategic value of the new missile as being able to target US territory and that "enemies know better about it."

This week's tests were the first in over a month, coming on the heels of a major, 11-day joint US-South Korea military drill. Throughout the exercise, North Korea also conducted its own exercises, with various tank, artillery, and paratrooper operations.

While it remains unclear how successful weapons testing has been for North Korea, the prioritization has given US officials pause. After Monday's test, a State Department spokesperson called on North Korea to "refrain from further provocative, destabilizing actions and return to diplomacy," a common response.

At the CSIS panel, Pak echoed similar sentiments. "We're incredibly concerned about all of these developments," she said, but she noted that there isn't clear evidence indicating the potential for a near-term attack. She said that didn't seem in Kim's best interest.

"But of course, we're always watchful of anything that, the gray zone activities," she added.

North Korea's ties to Russia

The US has slapped North Korea with more sanctions in recent years in reaction to its testing, including some imposed in October 2022, as well as sanctions related to its weapons transfers to Russia to stopgap ammunition supplies.

That closer relationship between Russia and North Korea, identified since Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin met last September to discuss an arms deal, has also raised concerns for US officials, who worry about what potential technologies and capabilities Russia could offer Kim in exchange for ammo for the war in Ukraine.

"North Korea certainly is not doing this for free," Pak said. "They're almost certainly looking for things like fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, ballistic missile technologies, and other technologies or armored vehicles," she said, adding that there was a lot Russia could provide.

There are many ways North Korea could benefit from this arrangement. It also gets to see how some of its weapons perform in combat, including its ballistic missiles, and that information could prove invaluable.

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