63. North Korean Missile Tests: Explained!! (English Vocabulary Lesson)

North Korea has recently restarted missile tests, worrying neighbouring countries and international organisations. Why have they decided to do this now? This episode will look at a few different explanations for North Korea’s missile tests, as well as discussing the country’s weapons programme in general!


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Vocabulary List

Tumultuous (adj) – full of confusion, change, or uncertainty

After the tumultuous events of 1990, Europe was completely changed

Totalitarian (adj) – being a political system in which those in power have complete control and do not allow people freedom to oppose them

North Korea may be a totalitarian regime

To violate (v) – to break or act against something, especially a law, agreement, principle, or something that should be treated with respect

They were charged with violating federal law

Provocative (adj) – causing an angry reaction, usually intentionally

In a deliberately provocative speech, she criticized the whole system of government 

To unveil (v) – to make something secret known 

The president’s new policy was unveiled at the press conference 

To prohibit (v) – to officially refuse to allow something

Motor vehicles are prohibited from driving in the town centre

Escalating (adj) – increasing in price, amount, rate, etc.

The price of oil is escalating

Stalemate (n) – a situation in which neither group involved in an argument can win or get an advantage and no action can be taken  

 Despite long discussions, the workers and the management remain locked in stalemate

Sanction (n) – an official order, such as the stopping of trade, that is taken against  a country in order to make it obey international law

Economic sanctions will only be lifted when the aggressive nation withdraws its troops


With all of the tumultuous events that have occurred recently, it is easy to forget that the world was terrified of North Korean violence only a few years ago. The coronavirus pandemic, political conflict around the world, police brutality and protests, the coup in Myanmar, and more I don’t have time to mention today have distracted us from things that we were terrified of happening in the past; including North Korean missile and nuclear tests. Yet, North Korea has not disappeared; they have not gone away! And the world was reminded of their threat last week. 

The totalitarian country launched two short-range ballistic missiles early in the morning. The missiles travelled almost 300 miles before crashing into the Sea of Japan away from Japanese territory. This was the second test in only a few days. Previously the North tested two cruise missiles. What’s the difference between a ballistic missile and a cruise missile? Ballistic missiles have what is known as a ballistic trajectory; so once all of their fuel is burnt it keeps moving, just like a bullet does out of a gun. Cruise missiles, on the other hand, use fuel the entire time they are in the air, and fly in a much straighter line and closer to the ground. Basically, a ballistic missile travels in a high arc up and down, while a cruise missile flies much straighter and flatter. 

You are probably thinking right now, why does the type of missile matter?  It actually matters a lot. Countries are allowed to test cruise missiles, but ballistic missiles violate UN security council laws. Therefore North Korea’s second missile test, which used ballistic missiles, was much more provocative. Those missiles also flew towards Japan. 

North Korea has been developing its weapons programme for a long time. However, since 2017 their technology seems to have progressed significantly. They revealed a missile capable of reaching distances of 4,500 km away which puts the US territory of Guan within its range. Moreover, shortly after the Hwason-14 was unveiled which reportedly could travel 10,000 km and would give the North Koreans their first intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching North America. More recently, even more powerful missile technology has been demonstrated by the North: surprising many military experts. In January 2021, they announced a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile, which they dramatically declared “the world’s most powerful weapon”.

Why has North Korea launched four missiles in such a short time period? Experts and North Korea watchers have a few different ideas.

One potential reason is that the country’s leaders want to slowly build up pressure on new American president Joe Biden and get his attention. This has actually been a common tactic used by Kim Jong Un and, before him, his father Kim Jong Il. Whenever North Korea wants something from the USA or the rest of the international community, they start by gradually becoming more aggressive and troublesome. In the past this has been through nuclear tests and missile launches. The idea is for this show of aggression to concern the US enough to make them negotiate some kind of deal. For example, Pyongyang is prohibited from almost all international trade, so often they will promise to stop testing missiles or stop building nuclear weapons in return for the end of trade sanctions. 

As I mentioned, this has always been a tactic of the country’s leaders. You can look through history yourself and see it. North Korea will become increasingly active and violent, before some kind of agreement is made. Think back to between 2017-2019. You may have already forgotten, but we went from a fast escalating verbal conflict between former President Donald Trump and the North, to the leaders of the two countries having a friendly meeting in the space of only a few months. This is exactly what they wanted. It’s like a child at a supermarket, who will cry and scream louder and louder until you buy them the candy or chocolate that they wanted. You know that your child is harmless, but buy the treat anyway because you want them to stop. In the same way, the US knows North Korea is unlikely to attack them any time soon, but wants them to stop firing missiles or testing weapons, or from getting so angry that the North makes a mistake or can’t go back to normal. 

I guess the major problem with this tactic is that the US and the DPRK can never agree on the order of their actions. Pyongyang wants America to stop sanctions first, and then they will agree to stop their tests or weapons programmes, while the US demands the opposite order – the tests need to stop before any kind of agreement is made. This stalemate between the two countries has been a feature of their relationship for decades, but it is increasingly concerning for Kim Jong Un right now. The North’s economy is really struggling despite the leaders promises to improve, and Covid has made everything even more difficult. These new missile tests, therefore, could be a warning to the new American president, who has already discussed tightening sanctions of the regime!

This is not the only theory! Another explanation is that recent tests have less to do with the US and more to do with improving North Korea’s military. According to Markus Garlauskas, the US national intelligence officer for North Korea from 2014 to 2020, “These launches are not a cry for attention, nor are they a cry for help with North Korea’s broken economy. Such launches are a sign of North Korea’s clear determination to continue advancing its ballistic-missile programs as part of making good on the ambitious plans for North Korea’s weapons programs.” The motivation may be military progress, not political negotiations.

Improving weapons systems, military power, and security from foreign enemies is an incredibly important part of the North Korean regime. Much of the country’s national identity is based on their military achievements and claims of superiority. Building new weapons and getting stronger was also one of the key promises made by Kim Jong Un during a meeting in January 2021. You cannot use your new weapons if you have not tested them beforehand – and this is potentially what the North is doing!

Final Thought

This episode has looked at recent North Korean missile tests, and tried to offer a few possibilities as to why they have decided to restart their testing programme. Some experts argue that North Korea is using aggression and missiles to force President Biden into some kind of agreement. This has been one of their common tactics in the past. On the other hand, these tests could also be designed to improve their military power and simply test some new weapons. Why do you think North Korea fired those missiles last week?

It is also important to remember it could have been worse. Those missiles were not close to the country’s most powerful weapons. Testing a massive intercontinental ballistic missile, or a nuclear bomb, would certainly be a lot more troubling and cause a much stronger reaction. Perhaps by testing smaller missiles, instead of the larger options, Kim Jong Un is hoping to get the US’s attention without making them too angry, and make sure the weapons work correctly at the same time. 

What do the next few years hold in store for US-North Korean relations? Trump made a deal while he was President: Test anything you want as long as it’s not an ICBM or a nuclear weapon that could threaten America. Biden will likely not continue the same policy. In the next weeks or months, the US will probably announce its new North Korea policy and we will then know a little more about the future!


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