North Korea broke a two-month lull in weapons testing with a dramatic launch of its most advanced missile yet, an intercontinental ballistic missile it claims can reach the “whole” US mainland.
The country’s state media declared the Hwasong-15 missile was “the most powerful ICBM” which carried a “super-large heavy warhead” to unprecedented heights of almost 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles).
It was a dramatic show of force and technical capabilities from Pyongyang, which had not conducted any military tests since September 15, raising suggestions that perhaps the rogue country was heeding warnings to halt its provocations and cease its weapons program.
Hwasong-15 is a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile, upgrade of Hwasong-14
Fired 3 a.m. local time from mobile launcher in Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province
Reached a height of 4,475 kilometers (2,800 miles), higher than ever before
Splashed down off the Japanese coast, within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone
South Korea responded with a “precision missile strike drill”
Precursor to nuclear test?
North Korea’s last test in September set off a firestorm of condemnation in the region and beyond, with multiple warnings from US President Donald Trump, including one issued during his stop in South Korea where he implored North Korea, “do not try us.”
In recent days, US officials told CNN they were puzzled why there hadn’t been a test in recent weeks, and on Monday, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said Moscow greatly valued the North Korean regime’s “silence.”
Any hope that Pyongyang’s silence could be interpreted as compliance seems to be misplaced.
A North Korean official told CNN following Wednesday’s launch Pyongyang was not interested in diplomacy with the US until it had fully demonstrated its nuclear deterrent capabilities.
Reiterating remarks made in the past, the official said one step was to conduct an above-ground nuclear detonation or “large-scale hydrogen bomb” test. The other was the “testing of a long-range ICBM,” the implication being this had been achieved with the most recent launch.
In a statement following the test, Pyongyang said the Hwasong-15 “meets the goal of the completion of the rocket weaponry system development.”
Compared to previous tests, Wednesday’s launch received a somewhat muted response from US President Donald Trump, who merely said “we will take care of it.”
“The bottom line is, it’s a continued effort to build a threat — a ballistic missile threat that endangers world peace, regional peace and certainly the United States,” US Defense Secretary James Mattis said, though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said diplomatic options “remain viable and open, for now.”
Following his visit to Asia earlier this month, Trump had appeared more optimistic about finding a solution to the North Korean crisis, praising China for sending an envoy to the country and promoting the ability of sanctions to reign in Pyongyang’s weapons programs.
Wednesday’s missile reached an altitude of up to 4,475 kilometers (2,800 miles), higher than any previous launch, a North Korea reading that was in line with estimates released by Japan and South Korea.
The missile was fired on a lofted trajectory, where the missile flies very high to cover a relatively short horizontal distance. David Wright, an expert with the Union of Concerned scientists said that if it had been fired on a standard trajectory, the ICBM would have been capable of traveling 13,000 kilometers, or 8,100 miles.
“Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington, DC, and in fact any part of the continental United States,” Wright said in a statement, though he noted that range probably wouldn’t be possible if the missile were fitted with a heavy nuclear warhead.
In a statement, North Korea said the missile was topped with a “super-large heavy warhead.”
Michael Elleman, a ballistic missile analyst with 38 North, noted that while the launch demonstrated North Korea had “taken another minor step forward,” more tests would be needed to “establish the missile’s performance and reliability.”
Elleman said North Korea’s re-entry vehicle capabilities remained unclear. In order for an ICBM to deliver its payload to a target, it must survive the intense heat of re-entering the earth’s atmosphere after a brief space flight, not breaking up or going off target in the process.
“A viable ICBM capable of reaching the west coast of the US mainland is still a year away, though North Korea continues to progress,” Elleman said.
While North Korea claimed to have a stable re-entry system following an ICBM test in July, South Korea’s intelligence service told lawmakers the technology was only “at the beginning stage” and was likely not “capable of re-entry.”
At a briefing this week however, lawmakers were told North Korea may be able to pair a nuclear warhead with a long-range ballistic missile sometime next year.
“They have been developing their nuclear capabilities faster than expected,” South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said. “We cannot rule out the possibility of North Korea declaring the completion of their nuclear program next year.”
The latest test appeared to be implementing lessons learned from two launches in July, when North Korea fired ICBMs over Japan, said Stratfor analyst Rodger Baker.
This could also be an explanation for the apparent lull in testing, as Pyongyang analyzed the July launches, its first of an ICBM done on a non-lofted trajectory.
“There’s a technical component that goes into these delays,” Baker said. “This is a functional military program. They take time to analyze the telemetries from previous launches.”
Baker and others have also noted a level of seasonality to the launches, with the fourth quarter of every year tending to have fewer North Korean missile tests due to a variety of factors, including soldiers being needed to help with the harvests and winter training schedules.
As well as its height, another notable featured of Wednesday’s test was that it was fired from a mobile launcher.
“Most of what they’ve been doing lately is with mobile launchers,” Baker said. “It demonstrates a potential strike capability that couldn’t be preempted by the US.”
US, Japanese and South Korean intelligence services — as well as independent observers — watch North Korea closely at all times for signs of potential groundwork for missile or nuclear tests.
Over the last “few days” there were intelligence indications that preparations were underway for a possible launch and those indications grew steadily until the launch took place, a US official told CNN.
Launching in the dark may have been an attempt to further conceal last-minute preparations, Baker said: “There were reports out of Japan and South Korea before the launch which suggested there was nothing visible yet. Late at night they moved the missile out and launched it.”
The use of mobile launchers and quick fueling stymies the ability of the US or South Korea to launch a pre-emptive strike against any planned North Korean attack, and increases their effectiveness as a deterrent.
“By showing they have missiles that can be used very quickly and before the US can get them,” Baker said. “Conceptually what they’re saying is we can bring out multiple missiles, and (even if some are intercepted) they will still get one or two through.”
From the US perspective, he said, “this just adds one more level of potential risk in the calculus of determining whether it wants to carry out a preemptive strike.”
South Korean test
Wednesday’s test prompted a swift reaction from South Korea, which carried out a “precision missile strike drill” within minutes.
The South’s army, navy and air force jointly fired three missiles (a ground-to-ground missile, a ship-to-ground missile and an air-to surface missile) and hit the same target around the similar time to show its ability to target North Korea’s origin of provocation.
Stratfor’s Baker said Seoul wanted to “show they are an independent actor and can strike back at North Korea without the US.”
That being said, “the South really wants to make sure there is no military action on the peninsula because they’re the ones who will hurt the most.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Wednesday Beijing has expressed “serious concern and opposition” over North Korea’s missile launch, and reiterated calls for Pyongyang to abide by “relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”