North Korea fuels bid for ‘new Cold War’ with failed missile launch after Russia treaty

North Korea looks to be banking on a “new Cold War” to evade sanctions and bolster its nuclear arsenal following a suspected advanced missile launched by an emboldened Pyongyang.

Analysts say Pyongyang is poised to escalate confrontation with Seoul in the wake of its cooperation treaty with Russia, its trash-balloon campaign targeting the South and a massive “hate America” rally to mark the anniversary of the Korean war.

The latest missile, fired on Wednesday from Pyongyang, flew 250km before exploding mid-air over the Sea of Japan, or East Sea, off the North’s port of Wonsan, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

“North Korea fired a ballistic missile from Pyongyang to the East Sea at 5.30am this morning. The missile is believed to have failed,” the South Korean military chiefs said in a statement.

In response to the launch, South Korea’s Marine Corps on Wednesday resumed a full-scale live-fire exercise on islands near the disputed inter-Korean sea border in the Yellow Sea for the first time in seven years.

The resumption came after the South fully suspended the 2018 inter-Korean tension reduction accord in early June, which called for a ban on hostile activities near the border.

The Marine Corps said its troops fired more than 290 live rounds into waters off the Yeonpyeong and Baengnyeong islands during the drills, which involved K9 howitzers, Chunmoo multiple rocket launcher systems and Spike anti-tank missiles.

In 2010, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island, killing four South Koreans, in protest against the South’s firing of artillery shells into the sea during a drill.

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A Spike missile is launched toward the sea off Yeonpyeong Island bordering North Korea, in South Korea. Photo: EPA-EFE

The North is believed to have tested a solid-fuel hypersonic ballistic missile in its latest launch. North Korea said in January and April this year it had successfully tested intermediate and long-range solid-fuel hypersonic missiles.

Pyongyang is aiming to develop hypersonic missiles as they can glide at more than five times the speed of sound during the descent phase, making their interception difficult.

Solid-fuel missiles are considered harder to detect than liquid-fuel ones ahead of launch as they require fewer preparation procedures.

Hypersonic missiles were a key element in the North’s five-year defence build-up plan, which is slated to wrap up next year, said Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies.

“North Korea is fully leveraging the new Cold War atmosphere, intensified by Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, to circumvent sanctions and develop its nuclear deterrence capabilities”, Yang told This Week in Asia.

“This is a political bonanza for the North,” he said, noting North Korea was obtaining economic gains and technology from Russia in return for supplying ammunition and playing Moscow against Beijing to draw both closer to itself.

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An image released by North Korean state media shows Wednesday’s test of what it said was a missile guidance control and combat separation system. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

Other projects in the defence plan adopted at the North’s eighth party congress in 2021 involved intercontinental ballistic missiles, multiple warhead guidance technology, nuclear submarines and military reconnaissance satellites.

Wednesday’s launch came after Pyongyang condemned the arrival in South Korea of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, threatening to deal with the United States’ aircraft carrier’s presence by taking “overwhelming and new” deterrence measures against the “provocative” act.

The aircraft carrier arrived in Busan, 320km southeast of Seoul, on Saturday ahead of a first “multi-domain” trilateral exercise with South Korea and Japan, covering air, sea, underwater and cyber drills.

Code-named Freedom Edge, the exercise takes its name from bilateral exercises the US holds with its Asian allies including Freedom Shield with South Korea and Keen Edge with Japan.

South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol on Tuesday boarded the aircraft carrier, saying the visit symbolised the “firm” US security commitment to his country and the trilateral alliance’s “extended deterrence”.

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South Korean soldiers check a balloon carrying garbage, presumably sent by North Korea, that was found in Seoul this month. Photo: EPA-EFE

“The cooperation between South Korea, the US and Japan, which share the values of liberal democracy, will become another powerful deterrent alongside the South Korea-US alliance,” he said.

A summit last week in Pyongyang between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un resulted in the signing of a comprehensive strategic cooperation treaty calling for each party to come to the other’s aid if attacked.

On Tuesday, Yoon condemned the signing as “anachronistic” and against international sanctions.

The North’s latest missile launch came hours after it sent trash-carrying balloons to the South on Tuesday night for a second straight day.

Since late last month, North Korea has reportedly launched more than 2,000 of such balloons in a tit-for-tat move against anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets sent by North Korean defectors and activists in the South.

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A rally at the Mayday Stadium in Pyongyang on Tuesday to mark the “Day of Struggle Against US imperialism”, on the 74th anniversary of the Korean war. Photo: AFP

In Pyongyang, North Korean authorities on Tuesday gathered more than 100,000 people at a sports stadium to hold a massive “hate America” rally on the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean war, its state media said on Wednesday.

The stadium was “full of the spirit of avengers to annihilate the enemy who massacred the Korean people,” KCNA said.

Lim Eul-chul, a senior researcher at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said: “All these moves reflect the North’s persecution complex and mounting security concerns even though it appears to up the ante following the signing of a new treaty with Russia.”

Calls are growing in South Korea to arm itself with nuclear weapons instead of entirely relying on US nuclear deterrence. Na Kyung-won, a leading politician of the ruling People Power Party, said on Tuesday that the PPP should adopt it as a party policy.

“It is disconcerting to see this vicious cycle of tension escalation with no diplomatic off-ramp over the horizon. Where will all these end?” Lim told This Week in Asia.

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