North Korea announced Monday that it had successfully tested a “newly developed ballistic rocket capable of carrying a large-size heavy nuclear warhead,” deepening fears that Kim Jong Un could one day have a weapon capable of hitting the United States.
Sunday’s test-launch, the tenth so far in 2017, involved a “ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12,” according to North Korea’s state media agency KCNA. Pyongyang also released video footage and photos of the launch that show Kim grinning and celebrating after the missile jets off into the sky.
Official reports from South Korea, Japan, and the United States all state that the missile flew high and splashed down off North Korea’s northeast coast, near Russian territory. The projectile flew nearly 500 miles, and the “test-fire was conducted at the highest angle in consideration of the security of neighboring countries,” according to North Korean state media. That means the missile was basically shot straight up into the sky so that it wouldn’t threaten Japan.
Analysts were quick to calculate that if the missile were launched on a flatter trajectory, it could have a maximum range of about 2,800 miles, which would put U.S. military bases on the Pacific island of Guam within striking distance. Hawaii is about 4,600 miles from North Korea, and California is roughly 5,800 miles away — both still considerable distances for a missile.
The test, occurring just days after South Korea’s presidential election, is significant for a number of reasons. The general consensus among independent experts is that North Korea is slowly but surely working toward developing a longer-range Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), and that this launch will help them learn how to build it because it involves similar technology.
“It is a stepping stone in North Korean ambitions to acquire an ever longer-range missile,” Tal Inbar, head of the Space & UAV center at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, told NK News. “An ICBM? No. But they are getting very close.”
The good news is that the new rocket, unveiled during a military parade last month, still uses liquid fuel, which is more cumbersome to work with than newer technologies. North Korea has also been working on solid-fuel rockets, which are difficult to defend against because they can be deployed quickly and stealthily on mobile launchers.
The photos released by North Korean state media indicate that the Hwasong-12 “is not a fully mobile missile,” Scott LaFoy, an open-source imagery analyst who specializes in ballistic missiles, told NK News. Instead, he said, the missile appears to use “a transportable system that has a very limited set of potential launch positions.” The upshot here is that if North Korea wanted to launch a missile at Guam, the U.S. would potentially have time to spot the launch in progress and react.
On the other hand, The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda pointed out that the missile is likely “a stepping-stone to a liquid-fueled ICBM.” Writing for the website 38 North, John Schilling noted that “this missile would allow North Korea to conduct at least some of the testing necessary to develop an operational ICBM without actually launching ICBMs.”
The takeaway here is that North Korea probably still can’t hit the United States, but the new rocket tested Sunday is the country’s most advanced yet — and a sign that Pyongyang will soon have North America in its sights if nothing changes. North Korean state media touted as much on Monday.
The state media announcement said Kim gave his rocket scientists “the order to continuously develop more-precise and diversified nukes and nuclear striking means” and “make preparations for more tests.”
The report said Kim specifically called out the U.S., warning that “the U.S. had better see clearly whether the ballistic rockets of [North Korea] pose actual threat to it or not.”