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North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Threats

Pyongyang’s provocative tests have alarmed its neighbors and fueled fears of further escalation.

By , a reporter at Foreign Policy.
A TV shows a North Korean missile launch.
A TV shows a North Korean missile launch.
People watch a TV at the Seoul railway station showing a North Korean missile launch in Seoul on Sept. 15, 2021. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at North Korea’s recent spate of ballistic missile tests, Thailand’s day care tragedy, and China’s influence at the United Nations.

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North Korea Ramps Up Ballistic Missile Tests 

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at North Korea’s recent spate of ballistic missile tests, Thailand’s day care tragedy, and China’s influence at the United Nations.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


North Korea Ramps Up Ballistic Missile Tests 

North Korea fired two ballistic missiles and flew a dozen warplanes by South Korea on Thursday in provocative military exercises that have alarmed its neighbors and fueled fears of further escalation. 

Thursday’s events come after a recent spate of North Korean ballistic missile launches and cap more than 40 missile tests just this year. On Tuesday, it also fired a ballistic missile over Japan for the first time since 2017, sparking panic and forcing Tokyo to issue an evacuation warning.

Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the latest tests are part of a “familiar pattern” of years of missile launches and operational exercises—though they have grown more intense in recent months. 

The primary purpose behind the recent launches, he said, is likely operational training—testing capabilities, collecting performance data, and conducting a process of testing and evaluation—while also sending a crucial political signal. 

“It’s really a show of force, a show of resolve, a show of capability in general,” he said. 

That has rattled Seoul and Tokyo, which have scrambled to respond by showcasing their own military capabilities. After North Korea fired the missile over Japan, U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military drills—which Pyongyang then criticized as a “serious threat to the stability.” On Thursday, U.S., Japanese, and South Korean warships also participated in joint exercises in the Sea of Japan.

We’re seeing “a bit of a spiraling dynamic” as the countries respond to each others’ missile launches with new tests of their own, Panda said. “That leads to, I think, a dangerous dynamic, where eventually we could be seeing an increased risk of misperception or miscalculation.”

At the United Nations, U.S. diplomats have accused Russia and China of stymying efforts to penalize North Korea for its ballistic missile tests—which are prohibited under U.N. Security Council resolutions—and thereby facilitating its escalations. Moscow and Beijing have in turn blamed Washington for instigating the tests. 

North Korea “has enjoyed blanket protection from two members of this council,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, while adding that they have “enabled [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un.”


What We’re Following Today

Thailand’s day care tragedy. At least 36 people—24 of whom were children—were killed after a former police officer wielding a gun and knife attacked a day care in Thailand on Thursday. His son was reportedly enrolled at the center. After he did not find his son, officials said, he attacked the other children and then later fled the scene, killing nine more people. When he returned home, he killed his wife, their child, and himself. 

The tragedy is Thailand’s worst mass shooting committed by a single person. Authorities said they believed he was on drugs; the police had previously fired him over drug possession.

China’s U.N. influence. The U.N. Human Rights Council has rejected a proposal to debate China’s alleged atrocities in its Xinjiang region—with 19 votes against, 17 votes in favor, and 11 abstentions—despite the U.N.’s own findings that Beijing may have committed crimes against humanity there. The proposal had been advanced by the United States, Britain, and their other allies

The decision, a major diplomatic win for Beijing, drew sharp criticism from human rights officials. “Thirty member states’ silence—or worse, blocking of debate—in the face of the atrocities committed by the Chinese government further sullies the reputation of the Human Rights Council,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general.


Keep an Eye On

Nigeria’s flood crisis. Brutal flooding has stranded thousands of people in Nigeria as it swallows up major roadways and washes away homes. The rising waters have also submerged fields and destroyed crops, fueling fears of rising food prices and food insecurity. “We are in the middle of a terrifying humanitarian crisis as we speak,” Kingsley Fanwo, a local official, told The Associated Press.

Greece’s migrant disaster. Two boats transporting migrants sank off the coast of Greece, killing at least 22 people, Greek authorities said on Thursday. Authorities have now launched large-scale rescue missions, and many more people are still missing. 

“The women who were rescued were in a state of total panic, so we’re still trying to figure out exactly what happened,” Nikos Kokkalas, a spokesperson for the Hellenic Coast Guard, told state media. 


Thursday’s Most Read

Russia’s Army Keeps Collapsing After Falling Back in Kherson by Jack Detsch

Mobilization Can’t Save Russia’s War by Doug Klain

What Accounts for the Economic Gap Between China and India? by Cameron Abadi


Odds and Ends 

An angry American tourist pushed over two Roman sculptures displayed at a Vatican museum after he found out he could not see the pope, Italian media reported. One of the figures is now missing its ear and a section of its nose. Authorities detained him on charges of aggravated property damage.

Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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