On Sunday morning, North Korea launched what it called a “new ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket.” Pyongyang might have been uncharacteristically modest. The new solid-fuel “Hwasong-12” could be an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Whether or not the missile is an ICBM—there is considerable disagreement about its range—the Kim regime is making fast progress.
The missile did not travel far—only 489 miles downrange, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. What caught everyone’s attention, however, is the arc. The missile, the North said, reached an altitude of 2,112 kilometers. These official range and altitude numbers are fairly close to the estimates of independent observers.
In any event, Sunday’s test, writes John Schilling on the widely followed 38 North site, “represents a level of performance never before seen from a North Korean missile.” Not only was the launch successful, it may have also crossed a closely watched threshold.
The Hwasong-12, “newly designed in a Korean style,” may be the North’s first successfully tested intercontinental ballistic missile. An ICBM is a missile that can travel at least 5,500 kilometers (some draw the line at 6,000 kilometers).
U.S. Pacific Command says the missile’s range is “not consistent” with that of an ICBM.
If fired on a flatter—more normal—trajectory, the Hwasong-12 would hit targets at least 4,000 kilometers away.
Other analysts, however, think its range is substantially longer. According to Kim Dong-yub of Seoul’s Kyungnam University, the missile might have a reach of 6,000 kilometers. Some say 7,000 kilometers.
The range of the Hwasong-12 matters because, among other things, two willful figures staked credibility on it. Kim Jong Un, in his New Year’s message this year, said the regime was in “last stage preparation” for conducting an “intercontinental ballistic rocket launch.”
Trump, then president-elect, replied the following day, tweeting “It won’t happen!”
It may just have happened. And if the Hwasong-12 is not in fact an ICBM, the North will almost certainly test one soon. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has launched more ballistic missiles in the last three years than in the previous three decades. Each test, successful or not, advances Pyongyang’s program.
North Korea also looks like it is making quick advances in another area: the ability to mate a nuclear warhead to its missiles. KCNA said the Hwasong-12 is “capable of carrying a large-size heavy nuclear warhead.” Moreover, the North claimed it had “verified the homing feature of the warhead under the worst re-entry situation and accurate performance of detonation system.”
At the moment, Pyongyang has at least three missiles that can reach the lower 48 states: the Taepodong-2, the KN-08, and the KN-14. If these three work—they are based on proven technologies but haven’t been tested—they can hit Seattle’s Space Needle or graze the Hollywood sign, but only with molten metal shards. North Korea, in other words, has not yet developed heat shielding for the warheads that will sit atop its longest-range missiles.
Yet heat shielding is not far from the reach of North Korean technicians. They have, from all accounts, been able to mate a nuke to their intermediate-range Nodong missile.
In short, the Norks can only be a few years from mastering the complex task of fitting a nuclear weapon on their longest-range missiles. So while the North’s claims regarding the warhead of the Hwasong-12 look exaggerated, Kim Jong Un will soon be able to airmail Armageddon to American addresses.
What is the next step for Kim’s rocket scientists? They may take the Hwasong-12 and use it as one of the stages of their next missile. As Melissa Hanham of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies told CNN, “This may become half or a third of an ICBM.”
A Hwasong-12 by itself may not have ICBM range, but two or three of them, stacked one on top of the other, certainly do.
“This is a very uncomfortable development for the United States,” said Lee Illwoo, a military analyst in Seoul, to the Washington Post. The Hwasong-12, even if able to travel only as far as its lowest estimate, can hit Guam, American territory and the site of Andersen Air Force Base. Yet the missile, at the upper end of estimates, can also reach Hawaii. The Kimster, should he put his pudgy finger on the button, will also be able to scorch snow in Alaska.
And here’s a message for Trump: strapped together, three Hwasong-12s can brown the turf of the South Lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.