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The Morning Dispatch: Another Missile Test From North Korea
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The Morning Dispatch: Another Missile Test From North Korea

It’s the fourth such show of force in the last two weeks.

Happy Tuesday! If you haven’t wished all the important people in your life a Happy Winnie the Pooh Day, please do so as soon as you finish reading this newsletter.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • An underwater volcano erupted near the Polynesian nation of Tonga on Saturday, spewing ash and gas miles into the air and triggering massive tsunami waves throughout the region. The extent of the casualties and damage remain unclear at this point with many of the islands’ communications lines having been severed, but local officials confirmed yesterday at least two people had died.

  • North Korea conducted yet another missile test on Monday—its fourth in recent weeks—with the country’s state media reporting two ballistic missiles “hit an island target” in the East Sea of Korea.

  • Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for a drone attack on Monday that killed three people at an Abu Dhabi oil facility and caused a fire at the city’s international airport. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration will work with the United Arab Emirates to “hold [the Houthis] accountable.”

  • China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported Monday the country’s gross domestic product increased 8.1 percent in 2021, but much of that growth was concentrated in the year’s first and second quarters. The country’s population continued to stagnate, with its birth rate dropping to the lowest level since at least 1978.

  • The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) slightly outraised its Republican counterpart (NRCC) in both the fourth quarter of 2021 and 2021 as a whole, with the DCCC ending the year with $82.5 million cash on hand compared to the NRCC’s $78.2 million. Both parties’ 2021 totals represent record off-year hauls.

‘Rocket Man’ Returns

(Photo by Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images.)

North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Monday, the South Korean military reported, persisting in its efforts to flaunt its military might despite recent U.S. sanctions targeting its weapons programs and condemnations by Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. State Department. The exercises mark the fourth such show of force by Pyongyang over the past two two weeks, after remaining dormant for much of 2021.

On January 5, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) tested a hypersonic missile that it claimed “precisely hit” a target more than 430 miles away from its launch site. The launch provoked international backlash, particularly given the advanced weaponry on display. Until last September—when North Korea first tested the technology—only Russia, China, and the United States had developed and tested hypersonic weapons.

Last week, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said that it had detected another missile—of a variety “more advanced” than the one reported earlier in the month—headed toward the Sea of Japan. The deployment of another hypersonic missile was confirmed in a story by KCNA, North Korea’s state-run media site, which wrote that Pyongyang’s defense industry was developing its military technology to “bolster up the country’s war deterrent” and “reliably guarantee the sovereignty and security of the state.” 

As is typical for authoritarian propaganda, the writeup included a few dramatic flourishes. “Toward daybreak, the Juche weapon representing the power of the DPRK roared to soar into [the] sky, brightening the dawning sky and leaving behind it a column of fire, under the supervision of Kim Jong Un,” KCNA reported. “The superior maneuverability of the hypersonic glide vehicle was more strikingly verified through the final test-fire.”

Initial reports from South Korea indicate that the missile traversed more than 435 miles and reached a velocity of 7,673 miles per hour—10  times the speed of sound. While speed provides the official basis for classifying hypersonic weapons, experts note that the projectiles’ ability to change course very close to their target—and travel in a less calculable path—is what makes them so effective at avoiding detection and interception by existing missile defense systems.

“What’s more important than the speed is the trajectory and the maneuverability of the warhead,” Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who previously served as the CIA’s deputy division chief for Korea, told The Dispatch. “Because it’s going that fast, it can travel at a flatter trajectory than a typical ballistic missile, which has a more predictable ballistic—or parabolic—trajectory. So it can fly flatter, which is harder to detect and track by radar. And the warhead is maneuverable, which makes it able to evade missile defenses.” 

Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential nominee of South Korea’s conservative People Power Party, argued last week in favor of preemptive strikes to counter such capabilities in the event that a conflict breaks out with the North. “Missiles that travel at speeds over Mach 5, if they are loaded with nuclear warheads, will reach the Seoul metropolitan area in less than a minute. Interception is practically impossible,” he said. “In that case, the only method to prevent them is conducting a preemptive strike when we detect signs [of a launch].”

“We have to clearly perceive the reality that North Korea is continuing to boost missile capabilities and critically threatening our security,” Yoon continued. “Tactically preventing [such threats] is not easy at the moment, so we need to keep pressuring North Korea through diplomacy to make it stop developing nuclear capabilities.”

The Biden administration, for its part, imposed sanctions last Wednesday on five individuals—including a Russian national—and a Russian-based firm for their involvement in North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the Biden administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, urged the international body to impose additional penalties in response to Pyongyang’s repeated violation of multiple U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions.

In an MSNBC interview Thursday morning, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also called on the UNSC to take action, expressing disappointment at North Korea’s rebuffing of the United States’ diplomatic overtures and denouncing the renewed weapons tests as “profoundly” destabilizing. “I think some of this is North Korea trying to get attention. It’s done that in the past; it’ll probably continue to do that,” Blinken said. “But we are very focused with allies and partners in making sure that they and we are properly defended and that there are repercussions, consequences for these actions by North Korea.”

The DPRK wasn’t deterred, accusing the United States on Friday of “intentionally escalating the situation” with “provocation[s] and gangster-like logic.” The country launched a pair of ballistic missiles from a train car later that day, and two more on Monday.

“Our recent development of a new-type weapon is for modernizing the national defence capability, not for aiming at a specific country or force, and it did not do harm to the security of the neighbouring countries,” a Friday statement from North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs read. “Increasing the national defence capability is a legitimate right of a sovereign state. We will never give up our fair and aboveboard right. If the United States takes such attitude of confrontation by all means, we cannot but make a stronger and clearer response.”

The uptick in test launches over the past few weeks is certainly a concerning development, but Klingner noted it’s far from a new one. “What we’ve seen, particularly under Kim Jong-un, is just an acceleration of the testing and a really dynamic expansion of the number of missiles that North Korea is developing and perhaps deploying,” he told The Dispatch. “Now [they] have several short-range and several medium-range missiles, so we don’t know if they’re going to complement each other, or compete with each other.” (For a deeper analysis of Kim Jong-un’s reign from Klingner, see this piece for The Dispatch from earlier this month.)

Worth Your Time

  • For the Washington Post, Marc Fisher, Drew Harwell, and Mary Beth Gahan provide a detailed look at the hostage situation at a Texas synagogue this weekend and place it within the broader rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the United States. “[Malik Faisal Akram] chose this place, according to people who heard him on the live stream, because it appeared to be the closest assemblage of Jews to a federal facility in Fort Worth where an American-educated Pakistani convicted terrorist is serving an 86-year sentence for shooting at U.S. soldiers and FBI agents,” they write. “For American Jews, the Beth Israel attack was less a watershed event than one more wearying, numbing reminder that they are targets. Not long ago, Jews could walk into synagogues without thinking about security. But after a torrent of threats and attacks—and especially after the 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, where a gunman opened fire, killing 11 Jews—houses of worship became forbidding gauntlets of protective measures: armed guards, searches, identity checks, questioning.”

  • In an essay for New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait argues progressives have yet to grapple with just how “catastrophic” COVID-19 school closures were. “It is always easier to diagnose these pathologies when they are taking place on the other side,” he writes of many progressives’ zero-COVID policies and deference to teachers unions. “You’ve probably seen the raft of papers showing how vaccine uptake correlates with Democratic voting and COVID deaths correlate with Republican voting. Perhaps you have marveled at the spectacle of Republican elites actively harming their own audience. But the same thing Fox News hosts were doing to their elderly supporters, progressive activists were doing to their side’s young ones. … The Democratic Party’s internal debate on school closings was making room at the table for some truly unhinged ideas. The head of the largest state’s most powerful teachers union insisted on the record “there is no such thing as learning loss” and described plans to reopen schools as “a recipe for propagating structural racism.”

  • With tensions between Russia and Ukraine continuing to mount, United Kingdom Defense Secretary Ben Wallace offers a forceful and strikingly candid rebuttal to the Kremlin’s false narratives about NATO expansion. Referencing President Vladimir Putin’s own words from July, Wallace details what he sees as the true motivations driving Moscow’s renewed aggression. “We should all worry because what flows from the pen of President Putin himself is a seven-thousand-word essay that puts ethnonationalism at the heart of his ambitions,” he writes. “So, if one cold January or February night Russian Military forces once more cross into sovereign Ukraine, ignore the ‘straw man’ narratives and ‘false flag’ stories of NATO aggression and remember the President of Russia’s own words in that essay from last summer. Remember it and ask yourself what it means, not just for Ukraine, but for all of us in Europe. What it means the next time…”

  • One of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, Brig. Gen. Charles McGee, died Sunday at the age of 102. Last summer, the Washington Post published a piece on how the fighter pilot—who conducted hundreds of missions across World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—was inspiring the next generation of aviators. “[McGee] was one of 900 Black pilots who trained at the segregated Tuskegee airfield in Alabama, overcoming racism to fly patrols during World War II,” Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff writes. “[He] was honored during President Donald Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address for his bravery, and last month, a terminal at the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City—where he lived for many years—was renamed after him. ‘The young folks are the future of this country,’ McGee said. …. ‘I don’t have too much time left here, so mentoring them is one of the most important things I can do.’”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On Monday’s episode of Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah engage in a riveting discussion with University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson about the constitutional amendment process.

  • On the site today, Andrew looks at what’s going on in North Carolina. The census gave the state an extra congressional district, and amid the redistricting process, Rep. Madison Cawthorn announced he’d be moving one district over for the midterm elections.

  • Frederick Hess grades President Biden’s higher education policy one-year in, and critiques Biden’s penchant for using executive orders to advance his agenda.

Let Us Know

Today’s newsletter at various points highlighted or alluded to geopolitical aggression from  North Korea, Russia, Iran, and China. Which concerns you the most?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).