After a successful test earlier this month, the Hwasong-12 has emerged as North Korea’s longest range missile system. Recent progress takes Pyongyang closer to full Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capability – until that goal is reached, diplomatic overtures from South Korea, China and the US will likely come to nothing.

Hwasong-12 missile test launch. Credit: DPRK state media

By Matthew Cottee, Research Associate, Non-proliferation and Nuclear Policy

This week’s North Korean missile test was the ninth of 2017 and, astonishingly, the 75th of Kim Jong-un’s rule. It demonstrated yet another development in the country’s ballistic missile technology and marked the first challenge to new South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was recently elected with a mandate to try and establish diplomatic channels with his northern neighbour.

The test of the new system, the Hwasong-12, occurred on 14 May near the Kusong Tank Factory, in North Korea’s north-west. The announcement of missile tests is becoming so commonplace that in April US Secretary of State Tillerson appeared to have tired of releasing even boilerplate responses, simply stating: ‘North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.’

A breakthrough in range and design

The Hwasong-12 differs from the numerous previous tests and is newsworthy due to its range and its design. Recent test history, whether classified as success or failure, has enabled North Korean technicians to build an indigenous missile system, rather than adapting Soviet designs. With a range calculated to be around 4500km flying on a flatter trajectory, it means that American assets in Guam are within range, although the grander ambition is to target the continental US.

Three days before the most recent test, the US Defense Intelligence Agency was keen to reiterate that although North Korea had achieved some key milestones in specific short-range systems, important shortfalls remain in the development of longer range missiles. The development of a functional Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) would require significant flight testing and corresponding modifications. 

With the successful test of the Hwasong-12 however, it would seem that some of these gaps are already being addressed. The missile successfully flew 787km on a trajectory peaking at over 2000km. The liquid-fuelled missile is now North Korea’s longest range system. State media agency KCNA claimed that the re-entry vehicle, which carries the warhead, had been tested "under the worst re-entry situation" (although South Korean officials claimed that re-entry was unsuccessful).  Also concerning were South Korean calculations that the Hwasong-12 could travel too quickly for the recently deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to intercept the missiles.

If further evidence was needed, the test demonstrates Kim Jong-un’s continued push for an ICBM capability. While such efforts are ongoing, it is difficult to identify why, or indeed how, North Korea might be enticed into any form of negotiation. A cap and freeze agreement—restricting Pyongyang’s development of nuclear or ballistic missile technology—is often mooted as a first step towards denuclearisation. Yet such a possibility is unlikely until Kim is satisfied that he can reasonably deter external attacks. At such a point of stasis, some form of agreement may be feasible from a North Korean perspective, although it would be rejected by the Trump administration.  

This stalemate presents an early, albeit predictable, obstacle for Moon Jae-in’s attempts at rapprochement. Comparing North Korea’s vilification of Mrs Park with the more accepting tone used towards President Moon, there would appear to be an improved chance of communication between the two countries. But Moon still has to balance domestic political divisions between liberals and conservatives and, with no transition from the Park administration, he has to do so quickly. He must also manage diplomatic tensions with China, caused by the deployment of THAAD, and determine the direction of South Korea’s relationship with the US.

Could China do more?

The Trump administration is open to dialogue with Pyongyang (IISS expert Mark Fitzpatrick has suggested dispatching Jared Kushner) under the right conditions, but believes that China should be doing more to contain North Korea. Beijing’s position remains inimitable; its political influence over North Korea has waned considerably while its economic leverage has increased. According to officials in Pyongyang, Chinese diplomatic access is much reduced. Unlike his father, Kim Jong-un does not meet with Chinese or Russian ambassadors. As such, it is difficult to see who would broker a diplomatic solution without access to the North Korean leader.

Economically, however, China is responsible for approximately 90% of North Korea’s trade and can adjust imports and exports as it sees fit. Ciu Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the US, recently defended Beijing’s efforts, arguing that it is doing all it can to squeeze the North Korean regime. The ambassador asked: ‘how much is sufficient without triggering a humanitarian crisis or pushing Pyongyang into desperation?’

Moon’s resounding election victory buoyed expectations of Korean rapprochement. The successful unveiling of the Hwasong-12 has checked some of this hope. Neither new presidents nor new missile systems have changed the overall strategic calculus on the Korean Peninsula, however. North Korea appears committed to developing a nuclear-capable ICBM. Until that has occurred any substantive negotiations look unlikely, irrespective of regional stakeholders’ efforts to engage with or pressure Pyongyang. 

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