In the early hours of November 29, the North Koreans launched a new ICBM.
As has been the case in recent years, they used a so-called lofted trajectory: the missile first went as high as possible, to an unprecedented altitude of some 4500 km, and then returned to the earth.
This time, it was launched in the vicinity of Pyongyang, near the city of Pyongsong, a major center of both military research and private business.
The lofted trajectory is different from the much lower trajectories that missiles are likely to use in case of a real conflict, but it is relatively easy to calculate the missile actual range if the parameters of the loft trajectory are known.
These estimates appeared immediately: the new North Korean ICBM, known as the Hwasong-15, has the largest range ever, capable of hitting any city within the continental United States.
Why did this launch happen and what can be done about it now? The short answers to these questions are: “because it was bound to happen” and “not much.”
THE WAITING GAME
A recent two and half month pause in North Korean missile testing produced some hope that they had decided to slow the program down – perhaps due to hitherto unprecedented Chinese pressure.
Some have suggested that the Trump administration’s recent decision to redesignate North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism might have played a role in Pyongyang’s decision to break the pause, as it demonstrated that their restraint was not appreciated in Washington.
In triumphant style, KCTV announced the launch in a special midday broadcast on Wednesday
It is difficult to agree with this theory. No doubt, the decision to reinstate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism was typical of Trump-style diplomacy, which often displays the tact and elegance of the proverbial bull in a china shop.
But there are good reasons to suspect that wiser behavior by Washington would not have made that much of a difference.
The North Koreans have always been determined to reach the Holy Grail of their nuclear and missile program: the ability to deliver atomic annihilation to any American city, at any time.
The recent pause was likely more the result of some technical difficulties rather than any political calculation. After all, it has been noticed that the frequency of missile launches in North Korea tends to fall at the end of each year.
The North Korean nuclear and missile program has advanced beyond everybody’s wildest expectations
But Pyongyang decision-makers see the ability to hit the United States as their best, and perhaps only, guarantee of long-term political survival. They are not going to stop testing until they reach that goal.
We can be pretty sure that in the months to come we will see more ICBMs flying high into space, and that sooner or later, the North Koreans will test an ICBM on a regular trajectory (admittedly, a highly risky move).
The North Koreans are not likely to stop until they can deploy ICBMs, and so far it is remarkable how successful their launches have been.
They have tested the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 three times. All these tests were successful – a far cry from how it was under Kim Jong Il when a number of tests went seriously wrong. They are close to their Holy Grail now, and are even less likely to stop, no matter what.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
As one would expect, President Trump, commenting on the situation, assured Americans that he “will take care of it” in some unspecified way. Prime Minister Abe of Japan, in turn, has said that a nuclear North Korea is “intolerable”.
This is all well and good, but, frankly, every North Korea watcher has heard similar statements many times before, since the days before the first nuclear test of 2006.
For two decades, the North Korean nuclear and missile program has advanced beyond everybody’s wildest expectations, but the supposed “intolerance” of both South Korea and the United States to its development has produced next to no results.
They are close to their Holy Grail now
Indeed, what can be done right now? The pattern is familiar: another urgent meeting by the UN Security Council will produce another resolution which will introduce yet another set of sanctions.
Given the sudden U-turn in the Chinese position and Beijing’s newfound resolve in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, we can expect that such a resolution will be approved faster than any of its predecessors.
Russia is not going to be happy about it, but being in the back seat when it comes to dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, Moscow is unlikely (for the time being, at least) to use its veto power, despite being skeptical about the efficiency of a sanctions-based approach.
So, assuming that a new, tougher resolution is indeed going to be passed, how will it influence the situation?
The new resolution will most likely introduce more bans on trade with North Korea, further tightening its access to foreign currency. So far, such tough sanctions have been remarkably unsuccessful, but now things may be different due to the recent change in the Chinese attitude.
However, even if the new round of sanctions will be supported and fully implemented by China, they will not produce noticeable results right away.
If this time sanctions are going to “work” – that is, adversely influence the North Korean economy and well-being of its population (a rather big if) – it will take a year or so before the results are felt in North Korea.
Pyongyang will continue with the advancement of its missile and nuclear program, now in its final stage
In some countries, this would probably produce the electoral defeat of the ruling party, but, as we all know, North Koreans don’t really vote. It is not clear whether they are even likely to start a large-scale riot, given the ubiquitous police presence and low level of mutual trust.
And even if such riots began, there is a high probability that the disturbances will be successfully suppressed by security forces, whose members have no reason to expect anything good for themselves and their families in case of regime collapse.
ONWARDS TO THE FINAL VICTORY
Irrespective of whether riots are going to happen or not, for another year or so (perhaps, even longer), Pyongyang will continue with the advancement of its missile and nuclear program, now in its final stage.
As long as the United States doesn’t use military force (at the cost of risking a major war), nothing can stop North Korean leaders from becoming the third country in the world, after Russia and China, capable of annihilating any American city.
Perhaps North Korean decision-makers hope that once they have the first strike capability in place, they will be in a position to start negotiating and, perhaps, negotiate a freeze under favorable conditions.
CNN recently cited a statement by an unnamed North Korean official who said: “Before we can engage in diplomacy with the Trump administration, we want to send a clear message that the DPRK has a reliable defensive and offensive capability to counter any aggression from the United States.”
These words are not surprising to the majority of North Korea watchers who have long known that this is exactly Pyongyang’s strategy or, at least, its plan A (there might be a plan B and a plan C, of course).
But it is remarkable that the intention to look for compromise after acquiring the first strike capability has been expressed in such explicit terms by a Pyongyang representative.
North Korea’s decision-makers believe that they have just a few more steps before they arrive at their strategic goal. Once there, they can begin negotiating and seriously reduce international pressure. They likely expect that if they agree to freeze launches and nuclear tests, many of the sanctions will be lifted. They are probably right.
Even if they are wrong, this belief more or less ensures that they are not going to stop.
The recent test is likely to be followed by more ICBM launches and nuclear tests, and no amount of UN Security Council votes, presidential tweets, or tough statements are going to change that.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
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