By Mark Tokola
It usually takes some time to figure out the details of what a North Korean missile test has accomplished – what type of missile it was, how it performed, its capabilities – but from the initial information regarding North Korea’s July 4th missile test, it appears that they have successfully tested an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).
The accepted technical definition of an ICBM is a missile that can travel 3,400 miles. The North Koreans test fired their missile to fly a short range but with a high trajectory; it landed off the west coast of Japan. If the trajectory was flattened out, the missile in theory could have flown over 4,000 miles, enabling it to reach Alaska but not the lower 48 states.
Conducting an ICBM test is a significant step in North Korea’s weapons program, but it is just a step. Kim Jong-un’s stated objective is to develop a reliable ICBM that can carry a nuclear warhead to the American homeland. The July 4th missile did not demonstrate that kind of range, and there is no evidence (yet) that North Korea has a nuclear warhead that could be carried by an ICBM. We shouldn’t downplay the significance of this test, but calling it a “game changer” may be an overstatement.
The true importance of the July 4th test is the timing – following a series of other missile launches in 2017, it is clear that North Korea is not slowing the pace of its quest for nuclear weaponry that can threaten the U.S. Further, Kim Jong-un has crudely described it as a “gift for the American b******ds,” implying it was timed for Independence Day. The language choice shows that the North Korean regime sees no hypocrisy in using such language about other countries while having a hair-trigger sensitivity to slights to its own national dignity. The test also comes on the eve of a G20 meeting, demonstrating North Korea’s desire to be in the international limelight.
Perhaps the most important fact about the timing of the North Korean ICBM test is that it comes on the heels of the first visit of new South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Washington, where he spoke clearly of his desire to engage North Korea in dialogue. If North Korea had any interest in demonstrating an openness to President Moon’s overture, it would not have conducted an ICBM test only days after President Moon’s public remarks. We should all hope that North Korea would be responsive to a South Korean initiative to defuse tension, but the July 4th test makes it hard to believe that there is any basis for that hope. North Korea seems unresponsive to China’s efforts to defuse tensions, and even less so to South Korea’s initiatives. North Korea seems single-mindedly focused on trying to acquire a reliable ability to credibly threaten the United States with a nuclear attack — truly a high stakes gamble on North Korea’s part.
Still, it is not too late for a diplomatic solution. That would be in the best interest of South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, the United States – and even for North Korea. That diplomatic path may be narrowing, and it will only be possible if South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, the United States, and others are able to maintain a common front against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. There is some evidence that sanctions are beginning to bite – which may be also be contributing to Kim Jong-un’s rush. As the world’s leaders gather for the July 7-8 G20 summit in Hamburg, watch for signs of unity or division to see how the international community may handle this growing threat.
Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Stefan Krasowski’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.