North Korea's Kim Jong Un keeps aiming his missiles at this 'most hated rock'

North Korea said it had tested a Hwasong-12 "mid-range ballistic missile" on Jan 31, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - As Mr Kim Jong Un unleashed his biggest barrage of missile tests last month, one place suffered the most: a barren pile of rocks whose name means "No Man's Land".

Alsom Island, located 18km off North Korea's north-eastern coast, has been targeted in more than 25 missile strikes since 2019.

It was the destination of eight rockets in January alone, as Mr Kim carried out the most launches since he took power in a signal of defiance against a United States-led sanctions regime intended to punish Pyongyang for developing such weapons.

The South Korean military has closely watched the outcropping's bombardment, especially after North Korea built a 10m-wide domed structure there in August 2020, according to opposition lawmaker Yoon Ju-kyeong.

Such a structure could be used to test bunker-buster bombs, her office said, while others have speculated it might serve as a stand-in for a government building in Seoul.

So much firepower directed at a single spot has prompted jokes that Mr Kim must have a grudge, with weapons expert Joseph Dempsey quipping on Twitter that Alsom was North Korea's "most hated rock".

Mr Dempsey, a research associate for defence and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the island provided a useful proving ground for a new generation of short-range weapons systems, such as its KN-23, that can strike all of South Korea.

"This relatively small and well-defined target presents a good way to demonstrate the apparent increased accuracy of these systems, particularly for propaganda purposes," said Mr Dempsey.

In recent weeks, Mr Kim has honed his newest short-range ballistic missiles on Alsom, some of which have slammed into the rocky outcrop at speeds possibly in excess of 3,000kmh.

North Korea also used the site to prove the accuracy and manoeuvrability of long-range cruise missiles that it said flew in patterns for 1,800km before hitting their targets on Jan 25. It released photos of the impact.

The island is situated far enough off the coast to provide a buffer for errant rockets and close enough to expect only North Korean vessels would be in the area.

At about 850m in length, it is small enough to show the US and its allies that Mr Kim can hit what he aims at.

A photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on Jan 28 shows what North Korea says is a long-range cruise missile test-fire at an undisclosed location. PHOTO: AFP

Mr Kim has sought to modernise his military arsenal, which had previously relied on Scud variants of questionable accuracy.

The new solid-fuel, short-range ballistic missiles that have been rolled out since 2019 are designed to fly about 250km to 500km. But some have been test-fired to more than 600km - long enough to reach a few parts of Japan's western coast.

As North Korea steps up launches, Alsom has provided a fiery backdrop for its domestically focused propaganda campaigns. State media have repeatedly published images of missiles fired at the island in recent days, including dramatic overhead drone shots.

North Korea has fired its new missiles from various locations as it tries out new capabilities, such as a January test of ballistic missiles fired from train cars.

Still, Alsom is too close to make a viable target if Mr Kim makes good on his threat to resume tests of larger, intercontinental ballistic missiles. Those must be fired hundreds of kilometres into space and fall farther from the country's shores.

Mr Kim could use a national holiday on Feb 16 marking what would have been the 80th birthday of his late father, Kim Jong Il, to show off his newest weaponry. The DongA newspaper reported satellite imagery showed signs of preparations for a military parade in Pyongyang, an event where it often unveils its advances.

So far, there is no indication the Biden administration - or the American public - is particularly alarmed by Mr Kim's missile tests. Unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, Mr Biden has avoided threats or other rhetorical escalations and said relatively little about the North Korean leader.

"North Korea has been doing missile tests, dozens of them, in prior administrations," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told a news briefing last week. "And obviously we've spoken to it each time that has happened. The door to diplomacy remains open and we have conveyed that clearly."

For now, the bombardment of Alsom looks set to continue.

North Korea has already fired more nuclear-capable missiles in 2022 than in all of last year. And holidays on Feb 16 and April 15 marking the respective birthdays of Kim's father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung have in the past provided occasions for military displays.

"By hitting the same target from different origins of aggression, North Korea could test and improve its striking capability aimed at the ROK," said Mr Cheon Seong-whun, a former security strategy secretary at South Korea's presidential Blue House, referring to South Korea by its formal name, Republic of Korea (ROK).

"Pyongyang is testing to see whether its striking options are working in reality," he said.

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