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Here’s What to Watch as North Korea Ratchets Up Nuclear Tensions

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North Korea set off a fresh cycle of provocations by firing three missiles in two days, issuing threats to the US over its joint military drills and parading in Pyongyang its newest rockets designed to deliver nuclear warheads to the American mainland.

Leader Kim Jong Un opened the year with a pledge to exponentially increase his nuclear arms program and has ignored repeated calls to return to stalled US-led talks on winding down his atomic ambitions.

After weathering global sanctions for a series of nuclear and missile tests in 2017, Kim likely sees little chance of more coming: Long-time partners China and Russia last year used their power at the UN Security Council to block any new penalties.

At this point, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities may have risen to a stage where the US may not be able to offer enough incentives to roll them back.

Here are major items to watch in the coming months.

1. Nuclear tests

Kim told his ruling party more than two years ago that he’s seeking tactical nuclear weapons for strikes on battlefields, and wants to increase the yield of thermonuclear bombs his regime can mount on long-range missiles.

That means North Korea’s next nuclear test may consist of two blasts. The first would be of a miniaturized weapon that could be mounted on longer-range artillery. The second would be of a bomb more powerful than one it detonated in 2017, which had an estimated yield of between 120-250 kilotons, roughly ten times the power what the US dropped on Hiroshima in World War II.

All six of North Korea’s previous nuclear tests have been conducted at its mountainous Punggye-ri test site. The US, South Korea and Japan have warned for months that the facility appears ready for another test.

2. ICBMs

At a military parade in February, the state let the world know what its priorities are for intercontinental ballistic missile development. The event was North Korea’s biggest-ever display of ICBMs, made up of just two models.

The first was its Hwasong-17, which experts say is designed to carry as many as three warheads to the US. The first full test of the missile blew up over the skies of Pyongyang last year, but North Korea has claimed successful launches since then.

The regime will likely further flight test the missile and its multiple warhead configuration to determine how well it can survive reentry into the atmosphere and strike potential targets.

The second missile is a solid-fuel ICBM. North Korea rolled out five canisters for the missiles at the parade, without showing the actual weapon it has tried for years to develop. The solid-propellant missiles would be easier to deploy and quicker to fire than the state’s current arsenal of liquid-fuel ICBMs, giving Washington less time to shoot one down.

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3. Operational Exercises

Instead of one-off tests of a missile to evaluate performance, North Korea has been favoring exercises that show it can strike on short notice, according to Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“In the coming months, North Korea could carry out additional liquid-propellant ICBM tests, including simultaneous or closely staggered launches of multiple ICBMs to simulate the operational conditions for a strategic retaliatory attack on the U.S,” Panda wrote in a February article for Seoul-based NK News.

North Korea has shown it wants to coordinate various assets to simulate an attack, like in did in November when it fired at least 23 missiles from separate locations, including the first ballistic missile to fly over a nautical border with South Korea.

4. Solid-fuel engine

North Korea tested a new, large-diameter, solid-propellant missile engine in December of last year. Apart from its use in a potential ICBM, North Korea could use the engine for intermediate-range missiles to strike Japan as well as hit US nuclear assets in places such as Guam.

5. Drones

North Korea sent drones across the border with South Korea in December and Kim has laid out plans for development of unmanned aerial vehicles as one of his priorities. NK News has said that the state hasn’t unveiled any new unmanned aerial vehicle or combat drone designs since 2012. Its current stocks of larger drone systems are based on older models procured from Russia and China, the US Defense Intelligence Agency has said.

6. Markets

South Koreans have lived with the threat from North Korea for decades and individual provocations from its neighbor rarely cause much of a move in markets. But some South Korean defense stocks have been rising this year, extending their gains from 2022 when expectations for bigger overseas orders amid Russia’s war in Ukraine boosted shares.

Shares of Hanwha Aerospace Co. have jumped about 19% so far in 2023 while Firstec Co. has climbed roughly 4%, after both companies gained in 2022. Other defense stocks, however, have fallen this year after a rally in 2022. LIG Nex1 Co. has slumped roughly 19% this year after jumping more than 34% last year. Hyundai Rotem Co. is down about 9% so far in 2023 after a 37% rally in 2022.

–With assistance from Youkyung Lee.

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