Anastasia O. Barannikova

Admiral Nevelskoy Maritime State University, Vladivostok

Abstract: Last year, the DPRK conducted an unprecedented number of missile tests and made changes to its nuclear doctrine. Among other systems, ICBMs were also tested, which means the end of the DPRK’s voluntary moratorium on the long-range missile launches. Although the country still adheres to a moratorium on nuclear testing, since last year there has been speculation in expert community about feasibility and timing of new nuclear tests in the DPRK. This article analyzes the main factors that prompted the activation of the North Korean nuclear missile program. It is concluded that intensified missile testing and doctrinal changes can be perceived as a part of the DPRK’s diplomacy and foreign policy. Demonstrations and testing of specific weapon systems also serve the purposes of missile diplomacy. North Korea’s tactics have become more sophisticated for years and allow putting pressure on both the United States and its allies in Asia in order to achieve certain political goals.

Keywords: DPRK, missile tests, missile diplomacy, tactical nuclear weapon (TNW), ICBM

2022 has become a record year of missile testing for the DPRK. At the time of writing this paper, the DPRK has carried out more than 60 test launches of various missiles, including intercontinental ones.

The number of tests of systems referred to as “tactical” in the official DPRK media has become more frequent too. KN-23 short-range solid-propellant ballistic missiles (compared by experts with the Russian Iskander and South Korean Hyunmoo), KN-24 (having similarities with ATAMCS), KN-19 anti-ship cruise missiles, KN-25 large-caliber multiple launch rocket systems, hypersonic missiles and combat railway missile system were tested among others.

On March 24, 2022, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time in five years, thus putting an end to its voluntary moratorium on the long-range missile launches.

The country has also improved its nuclear doctrine. The Law “On the DPRK’s Policy on the Nuclear Forces” was adopted at the 7th Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on September 8, 2022 to replace the Law “On further consolidating the position of the self-defense nuclear weapons state” of April 1, 2013. The new law retained the main provisions of the previous one, contained a number of additions, although hardly made the doctrine more transparent. At the same time the updated doctrine contains some changes, which suggest a rethinking of the DPRK’s role in the region and relations not only with opponents, but also with friendly countries like China and Russia.


What are the reasons for the intensification of missile tests this year? Leaving aside political and economic considerations, first explanation is quite trivial, caused by the technical need and the implementation of the decisions of the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which was held in January 2021 and, among other things, set the following tasks [1]:

  • advanced capability for making a preemptive and retaliatory nuclear strike;
  • design of new nuclear-powered submarine;
  • perfecting the guidance technology for multi-warhead missile;
  • modern tactical nuclear weapons including new-type tactical rockets and intermediate-range cruise missiles with conventional warheads.

The Congress also reported [1] on conducting and completing work on:

  • electronic weapons, unmanned striking equipment, means of reconnaissance and detection and military reconnaissance satellite;
  • “global strike rocket” with powerful warheads and improved warhead control and guidance capability;
  • warheads of different combat missions including the hypersonic gliding flight warheads for new-type ballistic rockets.

As we see, the DPRK had many systems to test and more tests will follow in the nearest term.

Secondly, external factors and global upheavals, the aggravation of conflicts between major powers and the loss of the image of reliable allies by these powers, could speed up the DPRK’s the missile testing and affect the nature of the tests and even the content of the nuclear doctrine. This year, the confrontation between Russia and the collective West has entered an open phase. At the same time, the rivalry between the United States and China continues, Inter-Korean relations deteriorated and the dialogue between the DPRK and the United States has reached an impasse. The world is plunging into another cold war and political divisions between major countries are becoming increasingly irreconcilable. The UN Security Council no longer has the unity that led to tightening pressure on the DPRK in the past. Russia and China not only use the right of veto when the US tries to push through another resolution [8; 10], but also openly accuse the US of provoking the DPRK [9]. The latter, on the one hand, is strengthening its defensive potential in response to global and regional challenges, and on the other hand, is taking advantage of the current situation and conducting the maximum possible number of tests. So, when the prospects for a dialogue with the US and the ROK reemerge, the DPRK can pause testing without compromising its plans to develop nuclear weapons.

Finally, more frequent missile testing can be perceived as a specific diplomacy. Even the routine tests carried out by the DPRK among other things serve as signals to the outside world. They, in fact, have become an important tool of the DPRK’s foreign policy and diplomacy in the absence of adequate dialogue with opponents.

By conducting missile tests, the DPRK can demonstrate its dissatisfaction with the current South Korean government, the conservative position of the United States and warn major powers, including friendly ones, against trying to use the DPRK as a bargaining chip in their rivalry. This is quite in line with the ultra-realistic approach that the DPRK adheres to. Here it is appropriate to recall that the updated North Korean doctrine mentions “hostile forces”, but does not mention any allies, not only because of the negative position of the DPRK on all kinds of alliances (alliances in their usual format contradict the ideology of self-reliance and threaten the independence and sovereignty of the country) but also because there are no eternal friends and eternal enemies. By the way, the “enemy” is also not specified in new North Korean doctrine. Updated version states that “the nuclear forces of the DPRK are a powerful means for defending the sovereignty, territorial integrity and fundamental interests of the state” [4], while the previous law characterized the NW of the DPRK as the means “to cope with ever-escalating hostile policy of the U.S. and nuclear threat” [3]. It means that North Korean nuclear weapons may also serve the purpose of deterring threats from the countries, which are currently considered friendly – the Russian Federation and China – in the event of a change in the internal political situation in these countries and deterioration of their relations with the DPRK. As for mentioning that NW of the DPRK is a means of “preventing a war on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia and ensuring the strategic stability of the world” [4], this suggests that in the future, the DPRK sees itself as at least a regional nuclear power that makes decisions independently and protects its own interests in the region. At the same time, the DPRK can also pursue global interests, as an active participant in the conflicts between major powers, as an independent actor or as part of a bloc/mechanism/partnership in Northeast Asia. At the same time, the DPRK makes it clear for anyone that further cooperation will have a fundamentally different content than, for example, the interaction of the DPRK with the USSR and China. The doctrine mentions hostile forces, but does not mention any allies, especially since the position of the DPRK on all kinds of alliances is clear – typical alliances run counter to the ideology of self-reliance and jeopardize the independence and sovereignty of the state. Thus, countries willing to cooperate with the DPRK will have to maintain this cooperation on the most equal basis, other than, say, US-ROK-Japan alliance, but similar to what is called strategic partnership. Focus on self-reliance and independence can be explained not only by North Korean state ideology but also by recent geopolitical trends. So-called “great powers” demonstrate incredibility and unreliability as allies. China has demonstrated its unpreparedness for a military confrontation with the United States, and the latter is completely losing credibility after distancing itself in the case of Afghanistan and in the situation around Ukraine. Russia is bogged down in a protracted conflict over Ukraine and cannot pay too much attention to the Korean Peninsula.

As for the signal to geopolitical opponents, the publication of doctrine demonstrated unchanged position of the DPRK on its nuclear status and senselessness of resuming dialogue with the old agenda.


The provisions of the new doctrine were backed up by frequent missile tests and demonstrations last year. However the tactics of North Korea has become even more sophisticated. For example, right up to the start of its voluntary moratorium on launching long-range missiles, the main target of the DPRK’s missile diplomacy was the US. Demonstrations and tests of ICBMs capable of delivering a nuclear charge to their continental territory and official statements were all aimed at influencing the position of the United States. However, recently, the DPRK has changed its tactics and started alternating pressure on the United States and its Asian allies. (End of introductory fragment)