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North Korea Is Ramping Up Its Missile Tests. How Worried Should We Be?

North Korea just can’t seem to stop launching missiles. No matter—or perhaps because of—how angry it makes its rivals, the isolated East Asian nation keeps conducting “tests” that make the world wonder: is it just bombast or is Pyongyang preparing for an actual blast?

North Korea has been hell-bent on developing its nuclear program and missile capabilities for the last six decades. Recently though, the country has ramped up its brinkmanship with more regular tests and explosive rhetoric—often shooting projectiles into the ocean and warning its enemies that the next ones could be coming for them.

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Last year was already record-breaking: data from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, which has been documenting North Korean missile launches since 1984, showed 68 tests in 2022—10 times more than in 2021. And there are no signs that the country plans to let up.

On Thursday morning local time, prompting a temporary evacuate-or-seek-shelter warning in Japan, North Korea reportedly fired a ballistic missile toward the East Sea—Pyongyang’s 12th test of the year so far, according to a review by TIME of reports by North Korea’s state news agency, South Korea’s military, and international media.

North Korea’s biggest threat is its nuclear arsenal, which the country’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has threatened to use “anytime and anywhere.” Researchers at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists “cautiously estimate” North Korea to have already assembled 20 to 30 nuclear warheads and to have enough fissile material to build as many 45 to 55 nuclear weapons. Other estimates suggest North Korea could have more than 100 nuclear weapons by now. This year, Kim has repeatedly called for the country to “exponentially” increase its nuclear weapon production.

The tests have been a way for North Korea to show off its varied warhead carriers—including low-altitude cruise missiles which can be guided to attack close targets, as well as ballistic missiles launched high up into the atmosphere that can travel thousands of miles at hypersonic speeds. North Korea has also tested unmanned underwater attack drones, which the country has claimed can carry a nuclear warhead and could trigger a “radioactive tsunami.” Pyongyang uses all these tests to master the technical aspects of its projectiles. Though North Korea often claims its launches to be reactions to perceived aggression by the U.S. or South Korea, the tests usually only prompt the allies to do more military drills, which North Korea then responds to with even more tests, in a seemingly endless tit-for-tat display of strength.

Some observers believe North Korea’s weapons development program is simply a bargaining chip to secure greater recognition or economic aid, but with ever-escalating tests and remonstrations, there remains an element of dangerous uncertainty.

Bernard Loo, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, tells TIME that he and many other experts like him tend to view North Korea as a “petulant child” demanding attention, since “it has absolutely no leverage whatsoever, except when it comes to nuclear and ballistic missiles tests.” That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to worry about. “As the child does not get any attention, sometimes it will ratchet up the tantrums,” Loo says. “I’m struggling to imagine what kind of behavior they could do [next] to make us look back at them and pay attention.”

Tracking North Korea’s missile tests this year

Jan. 1: One SRBM

Pyongyang started 2023 with a bang: in the early morning of New Year’s Day, it fired one short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) into the East Sea.

No other launches were made until February, after the grand display of military equipment on Feb. 8 which unveiled at least 15 missiles, including 11 Hwasong-17s—North Korea’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) dubbed the “monster missile,” which is believed to be capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. Analysts also observed some solid-fuel ICBM canisters, which would allow North Korea to launch its ballistics faster compared to when the missile propellant needs to be refueled in liquid form.

Feb. 18: One ICBM

The mid-February launch of the Hwasong-15 from the Pyongyang International Airport marks North Korea’s first firing of an ICBM this year. Launched at a lofted trajectory, it reached an altitude of more than 3,500 mi. and flew for about 66 minutes.

North Korea
Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/APThis unverified photo, provided by the North Korean government, shows what it says was a test launch of a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile at Pyongyang International Airport, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023.

North Korea’s ICBMs are launched at high angles to avoid hitting any countries during testing—but in an actual attack, they would be launched at much lower angles to maximize their trajectory and reach their targets. But whether or not these missiles will survive the high-temperature, high-stress environment of the earth’s atmosphere upon re-entry in real-life combat remains unclear, says Joseph Dempsey from the International Institute of Strategic Studies. “That doesn’t mean they don’t [have that ability],” Dempsey cautions. “It just means they haven’t demonstrated.”

Feb. 20: Two SRBMs

These SRBMs were launched from the country’s western front, landing in the East Sea. Following the launch, South Korea imposed sanctions on four individuals and five entities linked to North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons program.

Feb. 23: Four cruise missiles

North Korea claimed it fired four cruise missiles called Hwasal-2 from the eastern city of Kimchaek in Hamgyong Province, just a day before the U.S. and South Korea started joint exercises in the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang’s central news agency claimed the missiles traveled 1,240 miles in eight-shaped trajectories through the East Sea. However, South Korea’s defense ministry cast doubt on the details of North Korea’s purported launch.

March 9: Six SRBMs

North Korea ramped up its missile tests in March. Kim and his daughter reportedly had a front-row seat to the firing of six short-range missiles toward the sea off North Korea’s west coast under wargames. Kim, according to state media, expressed “great satisfaction” over the drills, as the troops “confidently” demonstrated the ability to “counter an actual war.”

March 12: Two cruise missiles

South Korea and the U.S. were scheduled to conduct large-scale military drills on March 13. In apparent protest, on the eve of the exercises, North Korea fired two cruise missiles from a submarine in the East Sea—which displayed the country’s amphibious launch abilities.

March 14: Two SRBMs

Continuing its protests, North Korea fired two more SRBMs from its west coast. While the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the launches don’t pose an immediate threat to its allies, it said the tests highlight the “destabilizing impact” of the North’s missile programs.

March 16: One ICBM

The second ICBM launched this year was the homegrown Hwasong-17, which had been paraded in January. North Korea said the launch was meant to “strike fear into the enemies” by showing how swift Pyongyang could respond to threats.

North Korea Koreas Tensions
Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/APIn this unverified photo provided by the North Korean government, Kim Jong Un watches a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, with a young woman who appears to be his daughter, on March 16, 2023.

Uk Yang, an expert in military strategies at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in South Korea, tells TIME he’s skeptical of the power of the missile’s large payload, pointing out that it’s not normal to have such road-mobile weapons. “Why U.S. or Russia wouldn’t have that big ICBM?” Yang says. “Because it’s not effective.”

March 19: One SRBM

Another SRBM was launched from Cholsan County, North P’yŏngan Province. The area contains North Korea’s key long-range rocket launch site. North Korean state news agencies said the country staged a drill “simulating a nuclear strike at a major enemy target” that same day, using a missile tipped with “a test warhead simulating a nuclear warhead.”

March 23: Four cruise missiles

South Korean defense officials said the North had fired at least four cruise missiles from its eastern Hamhung province. North Korea’s state media said the missiles used similar simulated nuclear warheads like the previously launched ones, but these missiles also reportedly tested minimum-altitude flight and evasive maneuvers.

March 26: Two SRBMs

South Korea and Japan detected two more SRBMs launched from North Korea’s east coast. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command reiterated the “destabilizing impact” of the tests but said there was no immediate threat.

April 13: At least one unspecified ballistic missile

Japan’s Ministry of Defense and South Korea’s military detected the launch of at least one ballistic missile early Thursday morning. The launch prompted Japan to issue a warning over the island prefecture of Hokkaido, cautioning residents to evacuate or take shelter. It later retracted the warning.

South Korea’s military believes the projectile to be an intermediate- or longer-range missile, while Japan’s defense agency said it appeared to be an ICBM. The test launch took place after North Korea’s Kim expressed dismay at the U.S. flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over the Korean Peninsula about a week earlier.

What have we learned from these launches?

Despite leaps in surveillance technology, gathering intelligence on North Korea’s opaque missiles program is still limited, says Loo from Singapore, as much of the assessment is extrapolated from existing combat systems. He also points out that the hermit state has developed a skill for “broadcasting television footage” of drills and launches that aren’t checked by independent third parties. “We really have very little understanding of what’s going on in there.”

But if Pyongyang increases its provocations, it risks revealing more about its weapon systems, says Dempsey. “As much as they want to prove the credibility [of] this system, it could actually backfire,” he explains, saying that any display of firepower risks exposing weaknesses and potential failures.

A map showing the reach of North Korea's missiles: Surface-to-air (<150 km), anti-ship cruise (250 km), short-range ballistic (500 km), medium-range ballistic (2,000 km), intermediate-range ballistic (5,000 km), and intercontinental (13,000 km)

Another reason we know so little about North Korea’s existing arsenal and capabilities, says Dempsey, is partly because of how fast its military keeps rolling out new technology. It’s unclear what they have that actually works. “That’s almost too much ambition,” Dempsey says of Pyongyang’s strategy. “You’re doing things … running before you can even walk.”

Still, the uncertainty created by a vicious cycle of North Korea appearing to build up its weaponry followed by the U.S. and South Korea strengthening their military alliance just in case isn’t necessarily putting the world on a path to nuclear disaster. It’s how deterrence works, Dempsey says. “That ambiguity? It’s good and bad…It means that nobody wants to find out either side.”

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