North Korea described the missile it launched on Tuesday as its “greatest ICBM,” a weapon capable of delivering a “super-large heavy nuclear warhead” to the “whole mainland” of the United States.
Outside analysts dispute these grandiose claims, but there is little doubt the test was a step forward for Pyongyang’s missile program. The burning question is whether China is finally prepared to take steps to halt North Korea’s drive for nuclear missiles and whether halting the program remains possible without military intervention.
North Korean media proudly displayed a signed order from dictator Kim Jong-un, reading, “Test launch is approved. Taking place at the daybreak of Nov. 29. Fire with courage for the party and country!”
After the launch, Kim declared “with pride” that North Korea has “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power.”
Analysts strongly disputed these claims, noting that while the North Korean missile flew higher and farther than previous vehicles, and could theoretically reach anywhere on the U.S. mainland, the North Koreans have not demonstrated the accuracy to hit a city at that range, the power to carry the sort of “heavy nuclear warhead” they imagine, or the ability to protect the warhead from heat damage during atmospheric re-entry.
There is also some debate over whether the missile is a new configuration, the “Hwasong-15,” as North Korea claims. It might be more properly treated as an incremental upgrade of a previous model. Analysts at watchdog group 38 North, for example, consider the missile similar to the Hwasong-14 tested by North Korea on July 28, but with an improved second stage giving it longer range.
“North Korea appears to have taken another minor step forward as it attempts to mature its ICBM technology,” 38 North concluded. “Many more tests are needed to establish the missile’s performance and reliability, and it remains unclear if the North’s engineers have attempted to characterize the performance of the re-entry vehicle. A viable ICBM capable of reaching the West Coast of the U.S. mainland is still a year away, although North Korea continues to progress.”
The estimate of its theoretical maximum range—8,100 miles, good enough to hit Washington, DC—is based on flattening the trajectory from the very high shot North Korea took, but more intelligence is needed about its flight characteristics, durability, and guidance systems to know for certain.
Of course, it would not be much comfort to anyone the missile actually lands on to know the weapon has poor accuracy and misses a target city by hundreds of miles. Hawaii is continuing its program to reinstate Cold War air-raid drills just in case.
South Korea took the new missile test very seriously, firing a few missiles of its own in a test launch intended to demonstrate speed and accuracy.
“If North Korea completes a ballistic missile that could reach from one continent to another, the situation can spiral out of control. We must stop a situation where North Korea miscalculates and threatens us with nuclear weapons or where the United States considers a pre-emptive strike,” South Korea President Moon Jae-in said at an emergency meeting in Seoul.
Moon reportedly urged China to “play a more active role in halting North Korean provocations,” as has Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
President Trump stated on Wednesday (through Twitter, of course) that he has spoken with Chinese President Xi Jinping “concerning the latest provocative actions of North Korea,” and said “additional major sanctions will be imposed on North Korea today”:
Just spoke to President XI JINPING of China concerning the provocative actions of North Korea. Additional major sanctions will be imposed on North Korea today. This situation will be handled!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2017
“President Trump emphasized the need for China to use all available levers to convince North Korea to end its provocations and return to the path of denuclearization,” the White House said of Trump’s call to Xi.
The White House reported that Trump also spoke with President Moon of South Korea. The two leaders “reaffirmed their strong condemnation of North Korea’s reckless campaign to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, noting that these weapons only serve to undermine North Korea’s security and deepen its diplomatic and economic isolation.”
In a more conventional statement from Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson elaborated that the administration has “a long list of additional potential sanctions,” some of them involving “financial institutions.” He promised details would be forthcoming from the Treasury Department.
A statement from Tillerson’s office published on Wednesday said:
The DPRK’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them must be reversed. Together the international community must continue to send a unified message to North Korea that the DPRK must abandon its WMD programs. All nations must continue strong economic and diplomatic measures. In addition to implementing all existing UN sanctions, the international community must take additional measures to enhance maritime security, including the right to interdict maritime traffic transporting goods to and from the DPRK.
The Secretary’s statement also said the United States and Canada would soon convene a meeting at the United Nations to discuss the latest developments in the North Korean situation.
“Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now. The United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearization and to ending belligerent actions by North Korea,” the statement stressed.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the missile test as a “clear violation of Security Council resolutions” that “shows complete disregard for the united view of the international community.” He urged the Kim regime to “desist taking any further destabilizing steps.”
China expressed “grave concern” about North Korea’s latest missile test, but otherwise repeated its shopworn position that the U.S. and South Korea should suspend military drills in return for a North Korean testing freeze, a non-starter on both sides that merely allows China to pretend it is above the fray.
An article by Nate Kerkhoff at the National Interest on Wednesday argues that despite China’s unchanging rhetoric, Beijing might really be coming to see North Korea as more trouble than it’s worth. The relationship between China and its feral client state has gone sour in recent years, with some evidence of personal animosity between Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
The recent relaxation of Chinese sanctions against South Korea, imposed in a fit of pique over the installation of America’s THAAD anti-missile system, may indicate China is coming to see the southern half of the Korean Peninsula as more lucrative, less troublesome neighbor. Also, China is increasingly uncomfortable with the measures South Korea feels compelled to take against the North Korean threat, prominently including missile defense.
Another interesting take on the latest developments comes from the Associated Press, where Foster Klug speculates that Tuesday’s test might actually be the end of the North Korean nuclear missile program, rather than a step closer to reaching Pyongyang’s ultimate goals.
Klug notes that North Korea refrained from taking the most provocative steps it could have taken, such as firing its missile over Japan or into the waters near Guam, and argues that the hyperbolic declarations of triumph from North Korean media might actually indicate Kim is declaring premature victory and turning away from his nuclear missile drive to focus on internal economic challenges.
Pyongyang’s press releases actually said something to this effect on Wednesday, declaring the new missile test meets all the goals set forth by Kim. This optimistic interpretation is leavened by necessary reassurances that predicting what North Korea will do next is extremely difficult.