North Korea’s Missile Launch — Is it Exploiting the Ukraine Crisis?

Seo Yeon Jeong, Editor

North Korea launched its latest and largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on March 24th, 20221. This signals an alarming escalation of arms accumulation by North Korea since 2017. With the entire world focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine since February, this turbulent time could be the perfect opportunity for North Korea to resume its long-awaited missile pursuit. This would also mean that the Biden administration will be strained further as it now needs to anticipate and react to both the escalation of the missile crisis in the Korean Peninsula and the threats of the continued massive civilian casualties and nuclear war by the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The new Hwasong-17 ICBM, a long-range missile, traveled about 1,100 kilometers and reached an altitude of approximately 6,000 kilometers, and landed about 150 kilometers west of Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Oshima Peninsula2. This was the farthest of all the missiles that North Korea has tested so far and is estimated to be able to reach the east coast of the United States. Being the largest liquid-fueled ballistic missile ever made, Hwasong-17 is suspected to be able to either carry vast amounts of nuclear warheads at the same or serve as a decoy for penetration aids3. Such development seems to contradict Kim’s assertions that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are solely for self-defense purposes. If nuclear weapons were indeed for security reasons, continuously developing larger and more deadly nuclear arsenals is not necessary. Not surprisingly, the launch has set off a red alarm throughout the globe and Hirokazu Matsuno, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, stated that such North Korean provocation is absolutely unacceptable and that its unilateral act endangers the international community in times of true global turmoil4. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the US White House Press Secretary Jen Pasaki have also shared the same sentiment by condemning the action as an outright violation of the UN Security Council’s resolution.

In her article titled “North Korea’s Nuclear Opportunism,” Sue Mi Terry explains that North Korea’s latest missile launch can be broadly understood to have two main triggers. First is that Ukraine’s current experience serves to reinforce the importance of maintaining the title of a nuclear power country. Under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, Ukraine relinquished the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union in exchange for becoming a non-nuclear state member to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and gaining political assurance of respecting its sovereignty and borders from the signatory states5. According to Kim, this move was a fatal decision made by Ukraine. In his view, if Ukraine had not given up its nuclear power, Russia would not have attacked the country with such ferocity or even dared to attack in the first place6. Thus, the Ukrainian experience confirmed Kim’s belief that the existence and strength of North Korea’s nuclear weapons are the sole political tool that is keeping North Korea’s–him–from being overthrown. Furthermore, the relatively relaxed check on North Korea from the United States and Russia being occupied with Ukraine and China dealing with the fallouts of it presents a ripped geopolitical environment for Kim.

The second trigger put forth by Sue Mi is that Kim’s missile tests can also be considered as a threat towards the incoming South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. Yoon Seuk-yeol, a candidate from the conservative People Power Party, won a tight presidential election on March 9th against Lee Jae-myung of the governing Democratic party7. In addition to Yoon’s proclamation of setting tougher and more confrontational South Korean policy toward DPRK, Pyongyang has a history of acknowledging South Korea’s incoming presidents with less than positive notes. When a conservative president, Park Geun-hye, assumed office in 2013, North Korea launched its third nuclear test only a few weeks before her inauguration8. Even progressive presidents who have attempted to bridge the peninsular divide as exemplified from Moon’s trademark policy of seeking peace and dialogue could not stop Kim from conducting additional nuclear and ballistic missile tests. 

Whether the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s new monster missile is just another symbolic warning against the newly elected South Korean President, Yoon Suk-yeol, or is an actual step forward in strengthening his regime, Pyongyang’s newest ICBM is a chilling reminder to the US as well as to all global powers that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent is still and will continue to be a very real threat to the safety of the international communities’ future. For the United States, the current situation proposes that the most viable option the Biden administration can take is to take advantage of Yoon Seok-yeol’s relatively pro-US military cooperation by continuing the US’ commitment to denuclearization through sanctions and deterrence to contain the North Korean instead of hastily reacting to the aggressor’s individual threats. The Ukraine crisis has provided a favorable ground for North Korea to initiate its provocation, but at the same time, Russia’s experience of a severe consequential economic downturn from global sanction could also serve as a reminder for North Korea of what their own future will be like if they were to persist in their current actions.


  1. Terry, Sue Mi. “North Korea’s Nuclear Opportunism.” Foreign Affairs, 24 Mar. 2022,
  2. Meredith, Sam. “North Korea Has Likely Tested a New Type of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, Japan Says.” CNBC, CNBC, 24 Mar. 2022,
  3. Denyer, Simon. “North Korea’s Huge New Missile Sends Menacing Message to next U.S. President.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 13 Oct. 2020,   
  4. Meredith, Sam. “North Korea Has Likely Tested a New Type of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, Japan Says.” CNBC, CNBC, 24 Mar. 2022,
  5. Borda, Aldo Zammit. “Ukraine War: What Is the Budapest Memorandum and Why Has Russia’s Invasion Torn It up?” The Conversation, 24 Mar. 2022,   
  6. Terry, Sue Mi. “North Korea’s Nuclear Opportunism.” Foreign Affairs, 24 Mar. 2022,
  7. Sang-Hun, Choe. “Opposition’s Yoon Wins Tight Race for South Korean Presidency.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 Mar. 2022,
  8. Ibid.

[Image Credit: Korea Central News Agency (KCNA), republished by British Broadcast Company]