North Korea claims it has launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile. What does that mean?


Six months ago, North Korea’s dynastic young leader, Kim Jong Un, announced in clear terms his nation’s resolve to develop a ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States.

Such an accomplishment would surely shift the power dynamic in northeast Asia — and help cement the regime’s long-sought status as a nuclear state.

It appears Kim Jong Un may have gotten his wish.

North Korea announced Tuesday that it had, at long last, test launched an intercontinental ballistic missile — a “glistening miracle,” as state news described it. The news means an already intractable problem posed by the regime’s advancing nuclear and missile programs just got more difficult for the United States and its regional allies.

“It’s really, really significant from a technological and political standpoint,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, who studies the regime’s missile program.

American and South Korean officials, while confirming the event and expressing concern, said in their initial assessments that the missile appeared to be somewhat less capable than North Korea announced.

Yet the questions about North Korea’s claim appeared to be about the performance and range of the missile—not the fact that Pyongyang had significantly improved its capability. By any measure, the missile appeared to be the longest-range device North Korea has tested.

The apparently successful test wasn’t a surprise for security analysts and military officials like Hanham, who were watching in the fall when North Korea suffered two mysterious and explosive missile failures at the same launch facility.

North Korea has also recently released images from rocket engine tests and displayed what appeared to be several intercontinental ballistic missiles at a massive military parade in Pyongyang this spring. The regime has accelerated the pace of its missile testing program in recent years under Kim Jong Un, a grandson of Kim Il Sung, the nation’s communist patriarch.

But the new capability — a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions — seems to have crossed a psychological threshold. It already has led to widespread alarm that other, shorter-range ballistic missile tests this year haven’t provoked.

“Politically, it’s a game changer,” said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Tuesday’s test, conducted at about 9:40 a.m. from Banghyon airfield near the northwestern town of Kusong, was the regime’s 12th and most significant launch this year.

North Korean media released images of a smiling Kim Jong Un, who reportedly watched the test nearby on a panel of computer monitors. Other images showed the leader surrounded by celebrating military commanders.

The device, which North Korea called the Hwasong 14, flew on a lofted trajectory more than 1,700 miles into the atmosphere — farther than the International Space Station — for around 40 minutes. It landed more than 500 miles east, in the Sea of Japan, which Koreans call the East Sea.

In theory, the missile’s range could have allowed it to reach Alaska on a flatter trajectory, though such a flight path would have introduced other technical complexities and physical hurdles for the regime’s scientists.

Still, it’s a significant accomplishment for the regime. “When I heard it was a 40-minute flight,” Hanham said, “my stomach just dropped.”

Newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who recently discussed North Korea at a summit meeting with President Trump in Washington, convened an emergency security meeting. He also called on the international community to “take action.”

But for South Korea and the United States, which has 28,000 troops on the Korean peninsula, a list of bad options for slowing or stopping North Korea now appear even more limited.

The regime’s nuclear and missile programs have perplexed the last three American presidents. They have tried negotiation, economic aid, international sanctions, diplomatic pressure and even covert action.

The strategies have failed. Experts now believe North Korea is an established nuclear state with more than a dozen devices. A key question had been whether the regime could deliver its weapons globally.

Experts believe North Korea needs more time to miniaturize its warheads so they can be launched on missiles. And scientists there still would need to figure out how to get the warheads to safely and accurately reenter the atmosphere en route to a target.

Still, the aim of long-range delivery now appears within sight, despite Trump’s pre-inauguration tweet, in January, vowing “It won’t happen!”

The Trump administration has announced a new policy of imposing “maximum pressure” on North Korea, calling for sanctions but also dialogue if the regime ends its program. The administration has left open the possibility of a military strike, but that could prove catastrophic.

North Korea, for example, could retaliate with its masses of conventional weapons, such as artillery, along the border that is roughly 40 miles from Seoul, a metropolitan area of more than 20 million residents.

Some believe the United States and other countries that have concerns about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs should negotiate a freeze on testing, and perhaps a return of international inspectors to North Korean laboratories.

With all the focus on missiles lately, it’s easy to forget that the North could perform its sixth underground nuclear detonation test any day — another provocation that would further increase the sense of crisis in the region, said John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.

“There are some diplomatic options — they’re not great — but they’re probably what we should do,” he said.

Trump had hoped that China — North Korea’s only significant trading partner — would help solve the problem. But in recent weeks his administration has grown frustrated with what it claims is a lack of pressure by Beijing on the regime, concerns Trump reportedly expressed in a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week.

“Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!” Trump tweeted after the launch.

Some question whether there’s much more that can be done by China, which also fears that a regime change in Pyongyang could lead to a North Korean refugee crisis or even a unified Korea which counts the United States as an ally.

“Even if you cancel most of the trade between China and North Korea, I think Kim Jong Un would still be determined to do these nuclear activities,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing. “I think the problem from China’s perspective is quite serious. And the issue is that China still can’t find a way out of this predicament.”

China announced in February that it would ban North Korean coal imports for the rest of 2017, in line with existing United Nations sanctions. Yet visitors to the China-North Korea border have witnessed coal trucks crossing, casting doubt on the ban’s efficacy, and China’s trade with North Korea grew nearly 40% in the first quarter of the year, according to Chinese official figures.

North Korea announced Tuesday’s launch on state television, using a familiar news anchor seen in other major announcements — a middle-aged woman in a pink hanbok, the traditional Korean dress.

“The success of the last stage of becoming a nuclear power state is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile,” she read in a booming cadence familiar to North Korea watchers.

Her report added that the test shows the “unwithering power of our state, our strong independence and defense in the world, and will be marked as a significant mark in our history.”

The announcement came after a nearly 30-minute montage featuring soaring socialist songs and patriotic imagery, including panoramas of the Pyongyang skyline and Mount Paektu, a volcano included in the country’s national emblem.

The montage also briefly included a soaring missile — a device that perhaps has now given North Korea an advantage it might retain for some time.

“At this point, it’s no longer about denuclearizing the Korean peninsula,” Hanham said. “Now it’s just about containing North Korea as best we can.”

Stiles, a special correspondent, reported from Seoul. Kaiman reported from Beijing. Jessica Meyers, a special correspondent, contributed reporting from Beijing.

jonathan.kaiman@latimes.com

For more news from Asia, follow @JRKaiman on Twitter



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