In late April, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he was taking steps "to strengthen and develop our nation's nuclear capabilities at the fastest pace," and warned he could preemptively use these weapons if he felt threatened. North Korea has conducted 14 weapons tests so far this year, with experts believing the latest launch on Wednesday was timed for the upcoming inauguration of South Korea's new president, as well as a way to get the attention of the United States. Here's everything you need to know:
What did North Korea test during its latest launch?
On Wednesday, North Korea launched a ballistic missile toward its eastern waters; it went about 310 miles, reaching an altitude of roughly 500 miles. This move was quickly condemned by the United States, Japan, and South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, which called North Korea's surge in testing "a grave threat" that undermines international peace and security and violates U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban the country from conducting ballistic launches.
How many and what kind of weapons does North Korea have?
The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan global security organization, estimates that North Korea's current nuclear warhead stockpile is between 25 and 50, with the country able to produce enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium. Since January, North Korea has conducted hypersonic, short-range, intermediate-range, and long-range intercontinental ballistic missile tests, BBC News reports, with the Hwasong-14 missile having a potential range of about 5,000 miles, putting the U.S. mainland within reach. During a military parade in January 2021, North Korea debuted a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile, calling it the "world's most powerful weapon."
Why is North Korea conducting so many weapons tests this year?
Experts believe there are several reasons for this. First, Kim wants to have an advanced and well-established nuclear arsenal. Observers believe that his goal is to get North Korea recognized as a nuclear state, using that leverage to force the United States into restarting talks and granting sanctions relief. Additionally, Kim wants to send a message to South Korea's incoming president, Yoon Suk-yeol. A conservative who said he will take a hardline approach when dealing with North Korea, Yoon will be inaugurated on May 10, and will serve one five-year term. South Korea's outgoing president, Moon Jae-in, has promoted engagement between the countries, and during his term met with Kim three times.
What has Yoon Suk-yeol said about North Korea?
He has called North Korea the "main enemy" of South Korea and said he will increase his country's missile defenses in response to Kim's provocations. In January, Yoon declared that if "North Korea tries to fire a nuclear missile, it means that we are already in a state of war. Then we should show we are capable of and willing to strike missile bases and commanders who ordered fire ... to prevent such reckless attacks."
After his election, he spoke with The Washington Post about South Korea's current administration, saying it "placed too much emphasis on the relationship with North Korea alone," to the detriment of other international relations. Yoon also said as president, he will provide humanitarian aid to North Korea "at any time," and if Pyongyang "abides to international rules," he will "start an economic development support program for North Korea."
What has been the U.S. reaction to North Korea's recent tests?
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas Greenfield told reporters on Tuesday that the United States has circulated a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council seeking additional sanctions against North Korea, and the plan is to "move forward with that resolution during this month." Russia and China both have veto power in the Security Council, and several diplomats told The Associated Press the countries are asking for sanctions against North Korea to be eased rather than tightened.
President Biden is traveling to South Korea and Japan later this month, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday that he will speak with those leaders about North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
When was North Korea's last underground nuclear test?
It has been almost five years since North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test. On Thursday, CNN reported that U.S. military and intelligence agencies have seen signs of personnel and vehicle activity at North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site, and preparations could be underway for an underground nuclear test by the end of May; if there is one, it will be the seventh time North Korea has carried out an underground nuclear test. The U.S. keeps an eye on Punggye-ri through satellite imagery, three U.S. officials told CNN, but it's not clear if nuclear material has been placed inside one of the site's underground tunnels.