North Korean Nuke-Capable Missile Could Hit U.S. and Be Sold to Iran

The launch on Sunday is another sign of Pyongyang’s growing threat, and the impotence of U.S. and global efforts to stop it.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

On Sunday, North Korea completed its second-in-a-row successful test of a three-stage launcher, showing the regime’s mastery of an especially complex technology.

Pyongyang claims it put an earth observation satellite—the Kwangmyongsong-4—in a polar orbit. More likely, the object now circling Earth is a decoy. In 2012, after the North’s last long-range test, it announced it had put a communications satellite in space. No signal, however, has ever been detected from the device.

That “satellite,” and the one launched this week, are about the same weight as a nuclear warhead, and that was the point of these elaborate exercises. North Korea has been putting dead objects in orbit so that it can test, in violation of four sets of UN Security Council resolutions, its ballistic missile technology under the guise of a civilian rocket program.

The rocket the North Koreans call the Unha-3 was probably the most advanced version of their Taepodong missile. It appears, from the location of Sunday’s splashdown zones, that the launcher has a range of 10,000 kilometers, the same as that of the 2012 version.

Some have taken comfort that the North Koreans have not improved the reach of their missile, but that would be a mistake. “This test launch took less time to set up and was conducted more covertly than any other launch in North Korean history,” notes North Korea analyst Bruce Bechtol, in comments circulated to The Daily Beast and others on Sunday.

Up to now, the North’s longest-range missile was never much of a weapon. It required weeks to transport, assemble, fuel, and test before launch. The calculus was that the U.S., in a wartime setting, would have plenty of time to destroy the launcher on the ground.

The North Koreans since 2012 have obviously been able to compress the cycle. This time, Pyongyang moved up the launch window and sent the Unha-3 into space on the window’s first day, surprising just about every observer.

That means, of course, the North Koreans are perfecting their launch skills, thereby decreasing on-the-ground vulnerability.

The Taepodong is still an easy target before launch, but once it reaches the edge of space it becomes fearsome. It has the range to make a dent in more than half of the continental United States. If its warhead is nuclear and explodes high above the American homeland, an electromagnetic pulse could disable electronics across vast swathes of the country.

The American intelligence community does not think the North Koreans have built a miniaturized nuclear warhead to go along with the Taepodong yet, but it’s clear they are on their way to developing such a device. The launch this week was one month and one day after their fourth nuclear detonation. Pyongyang, for all the snickering and derision it attracts, is capable of sneaking up on us and becoming an existential threat.

Why has the United States, the most powerful nation in history, not been able to stop destitute North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs? As Stapleton Roy, the former American diplomat told me in 2004, “No one has found a way to persuade North Korea to move in sensible directions.”

Certainly not the Obama administration. A multi-faceted bargain in 2012, the so-called Leap Day deal, fell apart weeks after it was put in place, when Kim Jong-un, the ruler of the despotic state, launched what his regime called a rocket.

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Then a new approach, backed by existing sanctions, also failed to produce results. The White House during this phase essentially left North Korea alone, ignoring Kim with a policy now known as “strategic patience.” It has been more like “strategic paralysis,” as David Maxwell of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies aptly termed it after the Sunday launch.

The evident failure of the current administration follows failures of different kinds by its two immediate predecessors. These days, like in past ones, American officials tell us how the North’s actions are “unacceptable,” the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, or “flagrant,” the term used by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, but the U.S. never seems to do anything effective.

Similarly, an emergency session of the Security Council on Sunday “strongly condemned” the launch but did nothing else. The UN still has not imposed any sanctions for the Jan. 6 detonation of what North Korea claims is a “hydrogen” device. Veto-wielding Beijing has made it clear it will not support a fifth set of UN sanctions.

Ultimately, the problem, as Maxwell notes, is that no country wants to pressure Kim so much that either he decides he has nothing to lose and goes to war or his decrepit state falls apart, causing tragedy of a different sort. Yet as long as the Kim family regime stays in power, it will continue to build horrific weapons.

“What North Korea wants most,” said Ashton Carter before he became secretary of defense “is oddly to be left alone, to run this rather odd country, a throwback to Stalinism.” If that were indeed true, President Obama’s strategic patience would have worked by now. Yet the North’s leaders are not content to misrule their 25 million subjects. They have institutionalized crisis.

When we examine evidence of the most recent crisis—scraps of the missile that fell into the sea Sunday and flight data—we will probably learn the North Koreans in fact tested their new 80-ton booster, which they have been developing for at least two years. It is almost certain Iran has paid for its development.

That’s why Bechtol, author of North Korea and Regional Security in the Kim Jong-un Era, thinks America in the months ahead should be looking for evidence of sales of the new missile to Iran. Larry Niksch of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in July that North Korea earns “upwards of two to three billion dollars annually from Iran for the various forms of collaboration between them.”

Even if one thinks Washington should not sanction North Korea to the brink of war or collapse, the U.S. at a minimum needs to stop sales of the launcher North Korea fired off this week. The Bush administration’s Proliferation Security Initiative, a comprehensive program to stop such transfers, has languished in Washington in recent years.

At this point, American policymakers are not trying very hard to stop North Korea’s trade in dangerous weapons. That, to borrow a phrase, is unacceptable.