North Korea’s test Thursday of its newest, strongest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) has exposed the weakness of U.S. defense against the North’s growing ability to explode a warhead anywhere in America.
By test-firing a Hwasong 17 from a site dangerously close to Pyongyang, the North challenged the U.S. to fire back with more than just diplomatic verbiage and act quickly on figuring out ways to shoot down missiles that could land anywhere on U.S. soil.
“A multiple warhead ICBM risks overwhelming the limited number of missile interceptors deployed in Alaska and California,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington. The impact, he told The Daily Beast, is “putting the American homeland at risk, overwhelming the limited number of missile interceptors deployed in Alaska and California.”
The latest ICBM shot broke a longstanding moratorium on testing long-range missiles of nuclear warheads. It has also proven that recent South Korean efforts to bring about reconciliation with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un have failed. North Korea’s last previous test of an ICBM, in the guise of a satellite, was in November 2017, and its sixth and last nuclear test was two months earlier.
This time around, the North did not pretend the ICBM, which landed 670 miles away in waters near the large northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, was just a satellite. Dropping the satellite cover “speaks volumes about Pyongyang’s belief that the Russia-Ukraine war and escalating tensions between the U.S. and China have distracted the United States,” said Evans Revere, former senior North Korea watcher at the U.S. embassy in Seoul and Washington. North Korea now has “a window of opportunity to carry out a major advance in its ICBM capabilities with minimum risk.”
The missile shot set off alarm bells in Japan. It was, said Nobuo Kishi, defense minister, a “new class” of missile, much stronger than the Hwasong 15 fired by North Korea in 2017.
North Korea showed off the long-range thrust of the Hwasong 17, paraded in Pyongyang in October 2020 flaunting multiple launchers, by firing its latest version 3,850 miles into the atmosphere.
U.S. counter-missile defense is iffy at best.
By flattening the arc, the missile is assumed to be able to land anywhere in the U.S. Even “the Hwasong-15 proved a range that could hit the U.S.,” said Bruce Bechtol, former analyst at the Pentagon and author of numerous books and articles on the North’s defenses. “So, yes, the North Koreans have that capability and have had it since at least 2017.”
But defending against them won’t be easy. “Can these missiles be shot down?,” Bechtol asked rhetorically in an email exchange with The Daily Beast. “One would think the answer is yes with our ballistic missile defense if only one missile was fired.” But “if the North Koreans were to send a volley, say six missiles all at once or even more, that shoot-down capability becomes significantly more difficult.”
Not that the U.S. isn’t trying.
“Ground based interceptors in Alaska are positioned to defend against this threat,” said David Maxwell, a retired U.S. army special forces officer with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “We have had some good test results.”
He doubted, however, if the North would stop testing just because the U.S. has managed, at tremendous expense, to conduct successful counter-missile tests. “I do not think a missile test by us will have any deterrent effect on Kim Jong Un,” he told The Daily Beast. “If Kim Jong Un thinks he must attack the US with an ICBM, he is going to do it however successful our tests have been.”
Analysts doubted, though, if Kim Jong Un was ready to go beyond showing off the North’s potential.
“Kim's intention is not to launch a nuclear war,” said David Straub, a former U.S. diplomat in Seoul. “His goal is to become accepted as a nuclear weapons state, that is, to keep and increase his nuclear weapons while seeing the international community drop sanctions against him, and then eventually to use his nuclear threat to undermine, first, the U.S.-South Korean alliance, and, second, the South Korean state.”
But, he added, “In the very unlikely event that Kim launched an ICBM against the United States or its allies, the United States would shoot it down, and much more besides.”
The question, though, is whether North Korean engineers and physicists have yet figured out how to fit a warhead to the tip of a missile. “We do not know if they miniaturized a nuclear warhead,” said Maxwell. “We know they have been working toward this. We have to assume they are on the path to produce one.”
While the White House and State Department were going through ritualistic condemnations of the test, South Korea responded with a display of its own prowess by test-firing missiles capable of hitting targets anywhere in North Korea.
Within hours after reporting the North had launched the ICBM, the South’s joint military staff announced tests of ground, sea and air missiles. South Korea has rarely if ever conducted all three types of tests in rapid succession, but South Korea’s military command said it wanted to show it was ready and able to attack North Korean test sites.
The drills sent “a clear counterforce message to North Korea,” said South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
South Korea’s outgoing President Moon Jae-in, frustrated in attempts at reopening dialogue with Kim Jong Un, presumably authorized the test, which he condemned in a formal statement. His efforts have been strongly opposed by President elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who has promised to rebuild strong ties with the U.S. while joining in calls for denuclearization.
The U.S. charge d’affaires in South Korea, Christopher Del Corso, said the U.S. and South Korea shared “the common goal of complete denuclearization,” but did not suggest how they would go about dealing with the North.
Nor could the U.S. expect real support elsewhere. Victor Cha, in charge of North Korea issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the “normal reflex'' would be to seek a UN Security Council Resolution, but he doubted if Russia and China would go along in view of the war in Ukraine and ongoing problems between the U.S. and China.
Sue Mi Terry, director for Korea at the Wilson Center in Washington, was not optimistic. In a panel staged by CSIS, she said she expected more such tests. “I’m afraid we’re at the beginning of this phase,” she said. “I expect more provocations.”
Testing missiles, though, carries perils. In its latest previous test, on March 16, a North Korean missile exploded about 20 kilometers up in the air after being launched from the Sunan site near Pyongyang.
“Multiple witnesses” in Pyongyang saw it happen, according to NK News, a website in Seoul that tracks North Korea.
“Debris fell in or near Pyongyang,” NK News reported, citing an image showing “a red-tinted ball of smoke at the end of a zig-sagging rocket launch trail in the sky” and “smaller trails” appearing “to extend straight down toward the ground.”