North Korea’s long-range-missile test — analysis
The wrong kind of fireworks
by Coco Jiang and Biodun Iginla, Political News Analysts, The Economist Intelligence Unit, Pyongyang/New York. Coco Jiang is working undercover in Pyongyang.
North Korea’s long-range-missile test will alarm Washington
The device tested appears capable of hitting Alaska
Jul 4th 2017
WHEN North Korea claimed it was in the final stages of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at the beginning of the year, Donald Trump scoffed: “It won’t happen.” So it was perhaps not a coincidence that North Korea chose America’s independence day to test a device that it claimed was indeed an ICBM. In fact, even if the claim is technically correct, the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, will probably have to wait a few more years before he can brandish a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to Los Angeles or New York. But for America’s top brass, the speed at which North Korea’s missile programme is advancing will cast a pall over the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
The missile appears to have flown for 37 minutes before splashing down some 930km from its launch. According to David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists, it had a lofted (heightened) trajectory, reaching an altitude of 2,800km. On a more conventional trajectory, the same missile would have a range of about 6,700km. That would be enough to reach Alaska, but not Hawaii or the American mainland. However, the minimum range needed to qualify as an ICBM is typically held to be 5,500km, so North Korea may be justified in describing this missile as one.
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This test comes after a similar one on May 14th; the missile used then, also on a lofted trajectory, was thought to have a potential range of 4,500km. John Schilling of the website “38 North” believes that missile to have been a scaled-down, two-stage version of the three-stage KN-08 prototype ICBM. The smaller missile, which the North Koreans called the Hwasong-12 and which Western intelligence analysts have tentatively designated as the KN-17, was displayed during a military parade on April 15th to celebrate the birthday of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea and the present despot’s grandfather.
After the launch on May 14th, Mr Schilling speculated that the Hwasong-12 was being used to develop the technologies and systems needed for future ICBMs. This would be cheaper and less provocative than testing the KN-08, particularly as its second stage would quite possibly fall on Japan, setting off a furore.
The North Koreans, in an announcement several hours after the July 4th launch, dubbed the latest missile the Hwasong-14, which suggests it may be a more powerful version of the Hwasong-12. The test, as well as demonstrating greater range, could have been designed to gain additional knowledge of the engineering requirements of warhead-carrying re-entry vehicles by flying for longer and at higher altitude.
On hearing the news, Donald Trump took to Twitter to harrumph: “North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
That is unlikely. Mr Trump has been forced to admit that his earlier hopes of getting China to rein in North Korea have gone unfulfilled. Two weeks ago, he tweeted that China had tried but that “it has not worked out.” Mr Trump seems also to be more aware than before that military options, while still “on the table” according to Mike Pence, the vice-president, are very much a last resort. His defence secretary, James Mattis, recently admitted that outright war with North Korea would be “catastrophic” and “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes”.
In a meeting in Washington last week with South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, Mr Trump emphasised that dialogue with North Korea “remains open under the right circumstances”. But there also seems scant prospect of that, given the zeal with which Mr Kim is pursuing his missile programme.
One remaining possibility is that America might threaten to shoot down North Korean missiles in their boost or ascent phase. If North Korea cannot test, it cannot build a reliable ICBM. However, Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies believes that such a capability will not be available until America and Japan can deploy new interceptors, known as Block 2A, on ships sailing near Japan. They would be 50% faster than the Block 1 interceptors that are currently in use. But a failed test in late June suggests that the new interceptors are still some way from entering service. Given the speed at which North Korea’s missile programme is advancing, its ICBMs may be ready before the interceptors are.