Analysis

The Dramatic Consequences of North Korea's Missile Launch

The fate of the world may now be a Cold War-style balance of nuclear deterrence, even if it's not quite mutually assured destruction

Photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows launching of the Hwasong-15 missile, capable of reaching all parts of the U.S.
Photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows launching of the Hwasong-15 missile, capable of reaching all parts of the U.S. KCNA VIA KNS/AFP

The missile launch at 3 A.M. Korean time Wednesday was dramatically different from the previous 22 launches that North Korea carried out this year. The Hwasong-15 missile rose 4,475 kilometers (2,780 miles) above the Earth, landing in the Sea of Japan after spending 53 minutes in the air. These figures suggest that this missile, when fired at a shallower trajectory, could achieve a range of anywhere between 10,000 and 13,000 kilometers. Skepticism around the world of Kim Jong Un’s ability to seriously threaten the continental United States has been firmly laid to rest.

“From the details we know so far, this is a totally new North Korean missile that we haven’t seen yet,” says Tal Inbar, head of the Space and UAV Research Center at the Fisher Institute in Herzliya. “This is a dramatic increase in North Korea’s proven capability. Until now they were suspected of having the range to just about reach the U.S. West Coast, and in one missile test they’ve shown they can hit anywhere in America, including Washington, D.C. and New York.”

The key question about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities is whether the country is as advanced in other crucial fields of research and production as in missile propulsion.

Possessing a missile that can reach any point in North America is one thing, but is North Korea capable of shrinking a nuclear device so it can fit in a warhead of an intercontinental ballistic missile? Are the North Korean warheads made out of advanced composite materials so they don’t disintegrate when re-entering the atmosphere? And do they have guidance and control systems letting the warhead target an American city, not fall in the ocean or desert?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in an undated photo released by the North Korean Central News Agency, November 29, 2017.
KCNA via Reuters

Intelligence analysts and weapons experts are divided on these questions. Some believe that advances in missile research have come at the expense of the other areas, and it could still take months to years before North Korea has the entire package. Others say a country that has proved it can develop an ICBM has almost certainly gotten as far in the parallel avenues of nuclear-weapon research, and that Wednesday’s test is proof that North Korea either already has the capability or is on the brink.

The different assessments reflect a critical lack of verifiable intelligence on North Korea’s true capabilities, but also the deep argument over how the United States should respond.

Those entertaining the possibility of a military strike against North Korea, with the objective of destroying Kim’s nuclear arsenal and possibly ending his dynasty’s rule, have to assume that there’s still a window of opportunity for military action before such an action carries the unbearable risk of a retaliatory nuclear strike. Assuming that North Korea already has that capability means accepting that it’s too late to attack and the only viable option is containment of an opaque nuclear dictatorship.

It seems almost incredible that the hermit kingdom of the Kims, shut off from much of the world (though enjoying nuclear assistance early on from Pakistan and in recent years from Iran), could have reached this point when millions of North Koreans have been starving as a result of failed policies, spending scarce resources on the nuclear program, and crippling sanctions. The third absolute leader of the Kim dynasty has attained his father and grandfather’s goal of safeguarding the regime with a nuclear insurance policy.

Photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows launching of the Hwasong-15 missile, capable of reaching all parts of the U.S.
KCNA VIA KNS/AFP

Wednesday’s news is a failure of Donald Trump’s bellicose Twitter deterrence, but it’s just as much a failure of the policies of nuclear diplomacy and sanctions of presidents over two decades. This includes Jimmy Carter, who was sent by Bill Clinton as a special negotiator to Pyongyang and was easily misled by the regime that it was prepared to suspend its nuclear program. But the fact that previous presidents could have acted to prevent this outcome, and thus are much more to blame than Trump, will be no comfort now that an inexperienced and impetuous showman has to deal with the result.

The more wide-reaching implications of the North Korean ICBM is the return of a Cold War-style balance of nuclear deterrence. This isn’t quite the mutually assured destruction – MAD – between the United States and Soviet Union of yesteryear. North Korea has nowhere near enough warheads or delivery systems for that, but even with the handful it does have, it could inflict unimaginable destruction on a major American city.

Not that North Korea is interested in doing that, but it could nix any future talk about regime change. Other aspiring nuclear powers, especially Iran, would thus probably be emboldened not to give up their nuclear programs, especially as Kim Jong Un has proved that a dictator who wants a nuclear weapon badly enough, and won’t be deterred by isolation and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his subjects, will ultimately achieve it.