North Korea Tests A Missile, And International Resolve

With another test expected, will Pyongyang's keepers push harder with sanctions, or look towards more dangerous solutions?

The long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) is launched during a test in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017 — REUTERS
May 19, 2017 at 1:44 PM ET

Last month, North Korea (DPRK) held a huge military parade as part of its Day of the Sun celebrations. Among the parade’s tanks and choreographed marches were huge vehicles carrying massive new missiles, never before seen by the media. Analysts feared they indicated North Korea was pressing ahead with long-range missiles.

These fears were proven correct over the weekend, as the country conducted its most sophisticated missile test yet. The missile, dubbed by North Korea’s media as a Hwasong-12, was fired on a steep trajectory high into space, reaching a total altitude of 2,111.5km before reentering over the Sea of Japan. Should the missile have been fired laterally rather than almost straight up, it would be able to reach further than any current missile operated by the country.

“It appears to be able to go about 4,500 km, which means anywhere from the western reaches of China to the eastern Aleutian Islands. That circle includes Guam, of course,” explains Joshua Pollack, an expert on nuclear and missile proliferation in Northeast Asia.

As well, the test confirmed that North Korea was well-advanced into its development of the reentry vehicles needed to successfully and accurately deliver a nuclear weapon from space via a long-range ballistic missile.

“This test is an indication of a viable reentry vehicle for ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) ranges. So was the successful Musudan test of last summer, involving a different type of RV [re-entry vehicle]. Both tests were “lofted,” meaning launched almost straight up, which leads to a more stressful reentry than would normally be the case for an intermediate-range missile,” explained Pollack.

The timing of the launch, just days after the inauguration of South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-in, was designed to test the resolve of the incoming government and fits into a pattern of similar provocations.

“North Korea has a history of attempting to test new South Korean and U.S. administrations,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, an expert on North Korea from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Indeed similar missile or nuclear tests occurred in 2003, 2008, 2009 and 2013, testing the incoming governments of Obama and Xi Jinping, in addition to fresh South Korean leaders.

“Being a political factor, a nuisance, a threat, is the North Korean way. Otherwise, why would the world’s biggest, most powerful, richest countries give money and respect to a bizarre dictator presiding over a nation of 25 million hungry people?” Lee remarks.

Despite two failed launches earlier this month, South Korean officials are alarmed at the speed at which the DPRK’s missile program is progressing, with Defense Minister Han Min-koo saying the North was moving faster than expected. More pessimistically, the South Korean President even went so far as to say there was a “high possibility” of military conflict with the DPRK.

For the U.S., the test showed that North Korea is now even closer to having an operational ICBM capability, able to strike major American cities. As such, the launch also represents a failure of the existing regime of sanctions aimed at preventing the country from attaining this capability. Sung-Yoon Lee attributes this to a lack of commitment to enforcement, rather than a failure of the tactic itself.

“Sanctions have not worked because they have never been enforced in any meaningful way. The widespread notion that U.S. sanctions against North Korea are maxed out is simply false. […] There’s a lot more the U.S. could do to choke off Pyongyang’s money streams and go after Chinese banks and entities that enable NK,” he says.

Notwithstanding a major change in North Korea’s trajectory, its missile development and its nuclear program will still forge ahead at an alarming rate. The world is still awaiting a possible sixth nuclear test, which although postponed, will likely occur in the coming months. At such a point, major players like the U.S., China and South Korea will have to decide: do they want to push harder with sanctions, or will they instead look towards more dangerous solutions?