Although North Korea’s latest missile test appears significant in technological terms, it did not cross President Donald Trump’s tweeted red line. Trump’s response suggests a willingness to deliberate when the policy options are dismal.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS-Americas 

President Donald Trump’s initial response to North Korea’s 12 February ballistic-missile test was far calmer than many of his earlier pronouncements on the subject. Asked about it during his golf weekend with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump simply called upon North Korea to fully comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions. He also reaffirmed US support for Japan – perhaps forgetting that South Korea is also targeted by North Korean missiles, not to mention its long-range artillery.

A month earlier, Trump had insisted, via Twitter, that North Korea would not be allowed to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had boasted in his New Year’s address. Luckily, Trump’s red line was not put to the test this time, since the missile in question was not an ICBM. Encouragingly, the episode suggests a willingness on Trump’s part to deliberate when the options are dismal. After having repeatedly lambasted his predecessor’s North Korea policy, Trump essentially repeated it: alliance unity and working through the UN.

It was not initially clear what exactly was tested. The South Korean Office of Joint Chiefs of Staff first said it appeared to be a Nodong, which has a range of 1200km, or perhaps a modified version of that missile. Later South Korean officials suggested it was likely to have been an intermediate-range Musudan, which was tested six times last year and has a range of about 3,000km. 

Late in the day, however, North Korean media claimed that the test was of a solid-fuelled Pukguksong-2 (North Star-2) ballistic missile. Pukguksong was the name North Korea gave to the sea-launched ballistic missile it claimed to have tested on 24 August 2016. A successful land-based test of the solid-fuelled system is a new and highly significant development, occasioning much boasting in the North Korea state media. Solid-fuelled missiles can be launched at short notice, and are thus far harder to neutralise via pre-emptive attack.

While Pyongyang’s claims are often exaggerated, the 500km distance and 550km lofted apogee of the test, equivalent to 1200km on a standard trajectory, is entirely consistent with a land-based version of the solid-fueled submarine-launched ballistic missile. The KN-11, as the missile is known in the West, has two stages, the first of which would have impacted roughly 70–100km down-range, possibly in populated territory. The North Koreans do not attach high priority to citizen safety.

Testing a missile after the United States and other countries had demanded a halt to the programme is an act of defiance that plays well domestically, showing Kim Jong-un to be a strong leader. The purpose of the test was not purely political, however. The timing may have been political, but the dominant reason for the test was probably technical. North Korea is determined to develop a capability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons, believing- wrongly – that this is necessary for its national defence.

Pyongyang has embarked on an ambitious missile and nuclear testing programme to develop that capability, with over 20 ballistic-missile tests from January through October 2016. After a lull that coincided with the US presidential election and transition, the 12 February 2017 test was a resumed step in that development. If the ambitious testing rate continues, North Korea may have an effective nuclear-tipped ICBM by the end of Trump's four-year term.

In the coming days and weeks, Trump will want to employ a more effective approach than demanding that North Korea to do something so out of its nature as to abide by UN mandates. He has already called for a review of North Korea policy, a process that may be delayed until key positions in the Departments of State and Defense are filled.

There are no good options. Everything has been tried - except military measures, out of concern not to spark a resumption of the Korean War. More sanctions and other forms of pressure can be expected, possibly including interdictions of North Korean ships. Some US officials have also been talking about pre-emption options. On 7 February, US Forces Korea Commander Vincent Brooks called for greater capability to target North Korean missile bases, saying that existing defences are insufficient to deal with the North Korean missile threat. It would not be surprising if one reason for the timing of North Korea’s most recent launch was to respond to Brooks.

Public talk of pre-emption should be quelled before it takes on a life of its own. In any case, pre-emption should not be a tool used unilaterally. South Korea, which would bear the brunt of North Korea’s military response, would need to be fully on board with any pre-emptive option. So, too, Japan, which could also see retaliation, this time with armed Nodongs.

Among a range of bad policy choices, an effort to engage Kim Jong-un - just as candidate Trump said he was willing to try - would not be the worst. Talking with North Korea while simultaneously applying pressure does not have to mean accepting it as a nuclear-armed state. If pre-emption is ever to emerge as the policy of choice, it will be imperative to have tried every peaceful measure first.

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