By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS-Americas
So much for the forlorn hope that diplomacy might yet rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The stars were not in alignment anyway, and North Korea’s 28 November missile test extinguished any flicker of faith.
Up until 28 November, 72 days had passed since North Korea’s last ballistic-missile test. Never mind that the annual need to put Korean People’s Army troops to work bringing in the harvest has typically coincided with a lull in missile testing. Washington could have used the lull as a gambit for seriously attempting diplomatic engagement. At one level, the US did try. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun flagged in a 31 October speech that a 60-day lull in nuclear and missile testing would be a signal to allow direct dialogue with Pyongyang. Although there was a suggestion that North Korea had to say the lull was intentional, the absence of any such statement could have been finessed.
President Donald Trump disparaged diplomacy, however, and North Korean representatives showed no interest either. The die for continued confrontation was then cast on 20 November, when the Trump administration redesignated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. A week later, Pyongyang pushed back with its third ICBM test.
The terrorism designation was fully warranted: the chemical-weapon assassination of Kim Jong-un’s elder half-brother at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport last February alone met the test. But a well-functioning US government would have applied the terrorism designation closer in time to that atrocity, or to North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests earlier this year. Announcing the designation in the middle of a testing lull showed a tin ear for timing and diplomacy.
Like the first two launches in July, the 28 November test launch flew nearly vertical, but 800 kilometres higher, and seven minutes longer than the last such test on 28 July, splashing down west of Japan about 1,000km from the launch site. Some of the initial estimates exaggerated the range had the missile flown on a standard trajectory. David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists said it would have been capable of travelling 13,000km. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the launch demonstrated North Korea’s ability to hit ‘everywhere in the world basically’.
The range of these missiles, the latest of which North Korea calls Hwasong-15, is very sensitive to the weight of the nose cone, however, and the November 28 launch could not have carried a dummy warhead of realistic weight. Because of this and other variables, IISS Senior Fellow for Missile Defence Michael Elleman estimates that with a heavy warhead typical of early designs, the missile may not reach beyond 8,000km. Until more is known about the missile, the data so far indicates it could hit Seattle, but not too many other cities in the continental US.
A shorter estimated range does not make North Korea’s missile threat any less real. Holding even one major US city at risk serves Pyongyang’s strategic aim of seeking to ‘decouple’ the US from its northeast Asian allies. There is no indication, however, that North Korea will achieve its goal. To the contrary, North Korea may well invite the very response it is seeking to forestall. President Trump’s robust rhetorical responses to North Korea’s tests suggests he is almost itching to take the fight to the adversary.
A US military response would not be warranted. Firstly, what target set? One witless American pundit thundered that the US should take out the test site from which the North Koreans launched the missile. Apparently he did not realise the test was from a mobile launcher, which would have moved away quickly. The idea of trying to destroy all missile launchers is similarly fantastical: the locations of all mobile launchers cannot be known. North Korea would retain, and surely use, its second-strike capabilities.
North Korea would respond forcefully to even a limited US strike. Every North Korean and North Korean expert I know bets that Pyongyang would not turn the other cheek and ignore an attack, as Syria did when Israel bombed its soon-to-be completed plutonium production reactor at Deir ez-Zor in 2007. Damascus could reasonably assume that was a one-off attack. Pyongyang would fear that one attack would be followed by more if it did not quickly raise the ante. Manipulating escalation is North Korea’s modus operandi.
The US and its allies have many non-kinetic ways to punish North Korea, and will surely be applying further pressure in the months ahead. Over time, it may help to persuade the North Korean people that the government’s byungjin policy of pursuing both nuclear weapons and economic growth is unworkable.
The best option for dealing with North Korea is to take a longer-term approach. There is no reason that the deterrence and containment policies which prevented the Soviet Union and China from using their nuclear weapons cannot work vis-à-vis North Korea. Meanwhile, every effort should be made to inform the North Korean people that their government is corrupt and unworthy. Eventually, the North Korean regime will change or fall from within.
Editor's note: Images later published by North Korea show the Hwasong-15 to be a larger missile than earlier North Korean ICBMs, indicating a range that could indeed hit anywhere in the United States.