North Korea Launches Another Ballistic Missile Test
More provocation from Pyongyang.
With tensions on the Korean peninsula already high, North Korea has fired off another test of its intercontinental ballistic missile:
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said on Tuesday that it had successfully conducted its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, claiming a milestone in its efforts to build nuclear weapons capable of hitting the mainland United States.
The announcement came hours after a launch that the United States military said sent the missile aloft for 37 minutes. That duration, analysts said, suggested a significant improvement in the range of the North’s missiles, and it might allow one to travel as far as 4,000 miles and hit Alaska.
In initial statements, the United States Pacific Command and the State Department described the weapon as an intermediate-range missile rather than an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The missile took off from the Banghyon airfield in the northwestern town of Kusong and flew 578 miles before landing in the sea between North Korea and Japan, the South Korean military said in a statement.
The Japanese government said the missile landed in its so-called exclusive economic zone off its western coast. It was the first missile test by the North since it launched land-to-sea cruise missiles off its east coast on June 8. Under a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions, North Korea is prohibited from developing or testing ballistic missiles.
While the North is believed to have made significant progress in its weapons programs, experts believe it still has a long way to go in miniaturizing nuclear warheads for intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The missile test adds a volatile new element to the Trump administration’s efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, which have included naval drills off the Korean Peninsula and pressure on China, Pyongyang’s longtime ally. In a blunt phone call Sunday, President Trump warned President Xi Jinping of China that the United States was prepared to act alone against North Korea.
If the missile took 37 minutes to fly 578 miles, that would mean that it had a highly lofted trajectory, probably reaching an altitude of more than 1,700 miles, said David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Such a missile would have a maximum range of roughly 4,160 miles, or 6,700 kilometers, on a standard trajectory, he said. North Korea said the missile, which it identified as the Hwasong-14, flew for 39 minutes.
“That range would not be enough to reach the lower 48 states or the large islands of Hawaii, but would allow it to reach all of Alaska,” Mr. Wright wrote in a blog post.
The missile looked like the longest-range missile that North Korea had ever tested, and its long flight time was “more consistent with an ICBM that can target Alaska and perhaps Hawaii,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“It’s a very big deal — it looks like North Korea tested an ICBM,” he said by email. “Even if this is a 7,000-km-range missile, a 10,000-km-range missile that can hit New York isn’t far off.”
But analysts also cautioned that although they have been impressed by the rapid and steady progress in the North’s missile programs, the long flight time itself did not suggest that North Korea had mastered the complex technologies needed to build a reliable nuclear-tipped ICBM, such as the know-how to separate the nuclear warhead and guide it to its target.\
By lofting some of its recent missiles to higher altitudes and letting them crash down toward the Earth at greater speeds, North Korea has claimed that it tested its “re-entry” technology, which can protect a nuclear warhead from intense heat and vibrations as it crashes through the Earth’s atmosphere. But it is still unclear whether the North has successfully cleared that technological hurdle, missile experts said.
Kim Dong-yub, a defense analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul, said that the Hwasong-12, which the North tested in May, flew 489 miles in 30 minutes, soaring to an altitude of 1,312 miles. Such a missile could deliver a standard 1,430-pound nuclear warhead over a range of 2,800 miles, not enough to reach Hawaii and Alaska, as North Korea claimed at the time.
North Korea’s test on Tuesday may have been intended to prove that its missiles could reach Hawaii and Alaska, Mr. Kim said.
The test came at the same time that President Trump is telling Chinese officials that the United States may act alone if Beijing is unable to restrain its North Korean allies:
WASHINGTON — President Trump, frustrated by China’s unwillingness to lean on North Korea, has told the Chinese leader that the United States is prepared to act on its own in pressuring the nuclear-armed government in Pyongyang, according to senior administration officials.
Mr. Trump’s warning, delivered in a cordial but blunt phone call on Sunday night to President Xi Jinping, came after a flurry of actions by the United States — selling weapons to Taiwan, threatening trade sanctions and branding China for human trafficking — that rankled the Chinese and left little doubt that the honeymoon between the two leaders was over.
After returning from his weekend getaway in Bedminster, N.J., late Monday, Mr. Trump noted on Twitter that North Korea had launched another ballistic missile, which landed in the sea between North Korea and Japan. He suggested it was time for China to act.
“Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!” Mr. Trump wrote.
American officials, who would not be named talking about the continuing dialogue with the Chinese, said they hoped the tough steps by the United States would spur Mr. Xi to reconsider his reluctance to press the North. But Mr. Trump, one official said, now has fewer illusions that China will radically alter its approach to its reclusive neighbor, which is driven more by fear of a chaotic upheaval there than by concern about its nuclear and missile programs.
That leaves the president in a familiar bind on North Korea as he prepares to leave for a Group of 20 meeting this week in Germany, where he will meet Mr. Xi as well as the leaders of Japan and South Korea, nations Mr. Trump has also turned to in navigating his approach to the North.
Without the full weight of China, pressure tactics are unlikely to force North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to change course. Yet diplomatic engagement — which Mr. Xi continues to push, according to officials — is not a step that Mr. Trump is ready to consider, after the death last month of an American college student, Otto F. Warmbier, who was held captive in Pyongyang for 17 months, then freed in a coma.
A go-it-alone approach by Mr. Trump would also further antagonize China, since it would require blacklisting multiple Chinese banks and companies that do business with the North. The United States began doing so on a modest scale last week by designating four Chinese entities and individuals.
The precarious state of United States-China relations was captured by the way the two sides characterized the call. The White House said only that Mr. Trump had raised the “growing threat” of North Korea’s weapons programs with Mr. Xi. The Chinese, in a more detailed statement, said the relationship was being “affected by some negative factors.”
The latest of these — and perhaps the most grating to the Chinese — was a naval maneuver in which an American guided-missile destroyer sailed near disputed territory claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea. The movement by the warship, the Stethem, off Triton Island in the Paracel archipelago prompted a furious response from China’s government, which called it a “serious political and military provocation.”
As noted, Trump tweeted about the situation:
North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 4, 2017
….and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 4, 2017
Realistically speaking, it’s unclear exactly what the United States can do short of actions that have the potential to provoke a military response from Pyongyang, something that Trump’s Defense Secretary General James Mattis has correctly described as being unthinkable due to the severe consequences that could be inflicted on innocent civilians. Additional sanctions could have an impact on North Korea’s inner circle of power, especially if they are backed up by the international community, but we’ve already imposed severe sanctions on the DPRK for decades now with limited apparent effect. Additionally, sanctions are unlikely to work unless China gets involved by taking steps to cut off trade across the Yalu River and limiting the coal trade, which helps North Korea obtain hard currency it can use to make purchases elsewhere in the world. We could also take steps to make it harder to do business beyond their borders, such as by closing off their access to the international banking system. The problem is that economic sanctions don’t seem to be enough to nudge the North Koreans into sanity. If anything, they’ve pushed them to become more and more reckless in their behavior over the years. While that’s not an argument for ending the sanctions regime we already have in place, it does suggest that we need to realize the limits of sanctions when it comes to dealing with this regime and its single-minded quest to preserve itself by establishing itself as a nuclear power capable of inflicting serious damage on not only its neighbors but also on China, Russia, and the United States.
Additional sanctions could have an impact on North Korea’s inner circle of power, especially if they are backed up by the international community, but we’ve already imposed severe sanctions on the DPRK for decades now with limited apparent effect. Additionally, sanctions are unlikely to work unless China gets involved by taking steps to cut off trade across the Yalu River and limiting the coal trade, which helps North Korea obtain hard currency it can use to make purchases elsewhere in the world. We could also take steps to make it harder to do business beyond their borders, such as by closing off their access to the international banking system. The problem is that economic sanctions don’t seem to be enough to nudge the North Koreans into sanity. If anything, they’ve pushed them to become more and more reckless in their behavior over the years. While that’s not an argument for ending the sanctions regime we already have in place, it does suggest that we need to realize the limits of sanctions when it comes to dealing with this regime and its single-minded quest to preserve itself by establishing itself as a nuclear power capable of inflicting serious damage on not only its neighbors but also on China, Russia, and the United States.
Another possible response would be to increase our military presence in the area as a means of sending a signal to Kim Jong Un of the potential danger he’s in if he continues down this path. That has happened recently with the decision to move a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, into an area of the Sea of Japan within striking distance of North Korea. Several weeks later, it was announced that another carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, would join the Vinson for a series of joint exercises over the summer. More recently there have been reports that the USS Nimitz would also be sailing to the area with its carrier battle group. While it seems unlikely that all three carriers would be staying in the area for an extended period of time, the presence of three aircraft carriers plus their support ships all within striking distance of the DPRK certainly isn’t coincidental. Additionally, the U.S. continues with the deployment of an anti-missile system designed to protect South Korea and Japan from North Korean attack, as well as its regular series of joint military exercises with the South Korean and Japanese defense forces.
Militarily, our options seem to be even more limited. As Defense Secretary Mattis, and numerous military analysts before him, has said, a military attack on North Korea would be potentially disastrous. While the United States and whatever allies joined us would eventually be victorious in a war on the Korean peninsula due to the superiority of our forces, especially in the air, the consequences in the short-term could be disastrous. In addition to a substantial manned presence, the North Koreans have massive amounts of artillery placed just on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone, all of which is within ten minutes or less striking distance of Seoul, a city of some ten million people. Additionally, the DPRK has rockets and other ordinance capable of hitting other areas of South Korea, including American and South Korean military facilities and other major cities such as Inchon and Busan, both of which have populations in excess of one million people each. It also has weaponry capable of hitting military and civilian targets in Japan. All of these targets would likely be considered viable targets in an all-out war and could be targets of a retaliatory attack in the event of a more limited U.S. attack on the North’s missile or nuclear research programs.
Keeping all of this in mind, it’s hard to predict where things are headed with regard to North Korea. For better or worse, the United States under President Trump appears to have concluded that the policies of the recent past have done little to restrain the DPRK from continuing its nuclear and missile programs, and that the combination of these two programs represent a threat to the United States, American national interests in the area, and to our allies. There is plenty of evidence to support the idea that this is a correct conclusion, but it’s unclear what we can do differently going forward.