About the Author
View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
North Korea’s surprise intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test on July 4 has sparked global headlines and outrage from key international players.
For the United States, the ICBM appears at the very least to pose a new type of military threat, allowing the DPRK, for the first time, to target the U.S. mainland with nuclear missiles. But because the test happened in face of President Donald J. Trump’s January tweet which insisted that an ICBM launch “won’t happen,” the stakes have undeniably just been raised.
Already, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called on countries hosting DPRK overseas workers to face consequences, and recent developments show Washington is likely open to pursuing a number of measures against individual companies in China. How then is Beijing likely to respond to this latest development?
And what then becomes of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s ostensible desire to pursue engagement with the North? Will he be able to convince Trump, in face of the latest development, of the logic behind his approach?
To find out, NK News reached out to a number of long-time DPRK watchers, the following of whom responded in time for our deadline:
1. What – if anything – changes for the U.S. now that North Korea has demonstrated a successful ICBM test?
Daniel Pinkston: It complicates the ability of the U.S. to fulfill its alliance commitments in East Asia, and it could undermine the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence for the ROK and Japan. The U.S. will have to take measures to bolster deterrence and demonstrate resolve.
Today’s CFC ballistic missile exercise is an example of that. In response, it can affect the way forces are deployed in the region, training, civil defense, missile defense, and counter-strike deployments.
John Delury: It’s a big success, a milestone. To some extent if you want to make it a game changer or not, you can. And you can downplay it too and talk about the things they still need to improve. Of course the more you do that, however, the more you incentivize them to keep testing and prove all those things.
We’ve been very hung-up on missile tests up until now. But Kim might now say ‘This was great, we might take a breather from the missile program’. So part of what kind of milestone the ICBM is depends on Kim Jong Un: he could legitimately claim victory here and say ‘I did what I said I was gonna do, so now we’re going to move onto X,Y, and Z’.
Anthony Ruggiero: The Trump administration must assume that North Korea can deliver a nuclear weapon on an ICBM to the United States.
The U.S. should use all available means to contain, and reverse, the threat from these ICBMs from increasing missile defense to robust sanctions.
Trump has already stated that his policy on North Korea will be “Maximum Pressure and Engagement”, which is a combination of strong economic sanctions, military deterrence, and diplomatic pressure in order to force North Korea to return to the negotiation table over its denuclearization.
The U.S. is not going to deviate from this framework for now.
Joshua Pollack: Based on the performance data supplied by the North Koreans, I estimate that the Hwasong-14 can travel somewhat more than 6,300 km, which is far enough to reach anywhere in Alaska, but not Honolulu or any point in the contiguous “lower 48” states.
What changes is that the North Koreans have demonstrated yet another new capability, underscoring that they are capable of making rapid achievements in building reliable, long-range missiles.
Earlier versions of this missile were shown in a parade in 2015 and in photographs in 2016. It was otherwise unknown before now. It appears to share a first-stage engine with the Hwasong-12 IRBM successfully tested in May.
2. Trump said the test wouldn’t happen and it’s now happened. What happens now?
While engagement requires North Korea’s consent, increased pressure does not. The ICBM launch presents Trump with an opportunity to move up the escalation ladder, especially with China.
Go Myong-hyun: It is possible that the U.S. was prepared to shoot down North Korea’s ICBM if it flew over Japan, but the ICBM’s relatively short range and high altitude indicates that North Korea tried to avoid such a possibility. Since military options are off the table, the U.S. response will follow from its current framework of “Maximum Pressure and Engagement”, that is, more sanctions against DPRK with possibly additional commodities export bans.
There will be greater pressure on China to cut down on its energy assistance to North Korea. As a result China may suspend its energy aid temporarily, but it’s unlikely such a measure will be long lasting.
He responded immediately to Kim Jong Un’s New Years’ Day resolution of being in the final stages of preparation for an ICBM test – and tweeted “it won’t happen”. That’s been interpreted as an implicit redline. I think it’s fair to say it was a red line, but with no explanation of how a test would be stopped or what the consequences of it would be.
And then we have yesterday’s remarks, when President Trump quickly tweeted a response thinking this was just another North Korean missile test. Now on the 4th of July, he blew it off to some extent, forgive the pun, he also punted to South Korea, China, and Japan, and said ‘surely you guys are gonna do something about this’.
Now we have to see if he’s gonna tackle it somehow, maybe at the G20 – but Trump will have to decide if he wants to focus everything at the G20 on North Korea, or does he want to get into trade and economic issues, which would seem to be ultimately more where his heart is at. Even in the Moon summit, my sense is Trump was much more interested in the trade part of the agenda than the North Korea part.
Joshua Pollack: Based on Trump’s immediate Twitter response, his instinct was to return to Plan A: leaning on the Chinese to take action. If and when the U.S. government offers a public determination that the Hwasong-13 is an ICBM — which the North Koreans say it is, and which it appears to be — then perhaps the White House will consider what Plan B looks like.
The President’s reported warning to Xi Jinping a couple of days ago that the U.S. would now handle North Korea may or may not be “operative” any longer.
3. How do you suspect China will respond to this test?
Go Myong-hyun: It will first condemn North Korea (as it has already done), but it will soon insist that the U.S. accept its “suspension-for-suspension” approach, in which North Korea freezes testing in exchange for the ROK-U.S. suspension of joint military exercises.
China won’t deviate from its current policy framework, which is centered on the resumption of the Six-Party Talks.
Daniel Pinkston: I think China is not pleased, but this does not change China’s national interests or the leadership’s policy preferences. China likely will impose some limited punishment or costs that North Korea can endure.
I expect China will continue its calls for “dialogue” and some type of North Korea WMD and missile testing freeze in exchange for the cancellation or scaling back of combined and multinational military exercises in South Korea. But I think that is a non-starter.
John Delury: Well China already put out their typical talking points, calling for restraint. Xi Jinping has just been with Vladimir Putin talking about THAAD, and reflecting this Chinese view that THAAD and the nuclear problem are on the same plane as security concerns. He didn’t say that but it was implicit in the joint meeting with Putin.
Right now China doesn’t have a lot to offer. They’ve re-upped the North Korean proposal about a dual-freeze, but it requires nothing on China’s part, and so it’s easy for them to like that proposal as they only stand to benefit.
Of late they’ve been steadily but incrementally increasing sanctions pressure. They can probably be expected to continue to do that. But it doesn’t make any fundamental difference. I think the irony is that there is so much focus on China, but at this point they’re really of marginal utility to the whole equation. Especially because they have such a weak link to Kim Jong Un – they’re not a very useful diplomatic channel. You don’t see high-level diplomatic exchanges, there’s no personal relationship between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un. So it’s actually a measure of their lack of influence and usefulness.
Anthony Ruggiero: Beijing will lay a trap for the Trump administration with a tough statement blaming the United States and North Korea while also sounding out tougher UN sanctions in New York. But it is all part of a carefully choreographed dance where Beijing knows all the moves.
China will never allow the UN to designate the non-North Korean entities and individuals (read: Chinese entities and individuals) the UN Panel of Experts says are leading sanctions evasion. Beijing likely will support a new restriction on oil exports to Pyongyang, but only with enough loopholes to make the “sanction” ineffective.
Joshua Pollack: China, for its own part, has already declared its position, which hasn’t changed.
4. Do you think this will be the end of Moon’s aspirations for Sunshine 2.0?
This latest test just underscores the problem, the security dilemma that the two sides have been locked into for a long time. The logic behind engagement still applies – arguably it applies even more – if you want to change these dynamics, the kind of dynamics that result in test-after-test-after-test, you have to address the underlying dynamics in the relationship and that’s what the bigger Moon strategy is about.
So, although he’s very constrained, politically, domestically, and internationally, it would be quite illogical for him to say “oh, forget about engagement” – quite the opposite. He has to look tough of course (in the short-term).
Anthony Ruggiero: North Korea does not want Sunshine 2.0 and the ICBM test shows that Kim Jong Un does not want to pretend to negotiate even for all the inducements Moon is ready to offer. Sunshine did not work, Kaesong did not work, negotiating a freeze that will not lead to denuclearization did not work.
At some point we will believe North Korea when they say they are keeping these nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. When we understand that we will begin to craft solutions, including robust sanctions on China and North Korea, that will begin to impact these programs.
Go Myong-hyun: Moon’s North Korea policy was rather vague during the electoral campaign, but became clearer after the ROK-U.S. summit. Whereas before the summit it was thought that the Moon administration would offer unconditional engagement to North Korea, throughout and after the summit Moon insisted on strong deterrence before engagement. It means North Korea should first cease carrying out serious provocations in order for South Korea to engage North Korea economically.
In effect, Moon’s North Korea policy is not unconditional engagement, but a conditional one. Engagement will only take place after North Korea inches closer to the negotiation table. Until then, the drive for engagement is not dead but merely postponed.
Joshua Pollack: This is neither the first nor the last North Korean missile test during the Moon presidency. I could be mistaken, but I don’t think the details of this test will force any particular course of action upon him.
What is perhaps more important is North Korea’s increasingly strident criticism of the Moon-Trump relationship. This is connected to last week’s summit, but if it keeps up, then you can probably forget about “Moonshine” for awhile.
First, he assumed that North Korea would be willing to accept some kind of arrangement or negotiated settlement that would include denuclearization in exchange for some positive incentives or rewards.
Second, he assumed that his administration’s offer of such incentives would be considered credible and acceptable to North Korea. I think the first assumption is wrong. I don’t see any sign that North Korea would be willing to denuclearize except when we reach global zero and they go last.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun