On 4th July 2017, KCNA (the North Korean State Television) announced to have successfully tested its first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile ICBM, under the scrutiny of the leader Kim Jong-Un.
“Our scientists and technicians have developed and successfully test-launched a new ICBM called Hwasong-14. The missile was fired vertically and did not threaten the safety of neighboring countries. The ICBM reached an altitude of 2,802 kilometers and flew a distance of 933 kilometers”. The TV announcer also added that North Korea is “a strong nuclear power state with a very powerful ICBM that can strike any place in the world”.
While the North claims that the missile reached its target and had an airborne time of 39 minutes, both the US and Russia at first expressed skepticism. The Russian Defence Ministry declared that the North Koreans tested an intermediate range missile (IRBM), while the US contested the ability of the regime to test an ICBM. Nevertheless, as hours passed, it was clear that North Korea had now at disposal a new weapon. The US Union of Concerned Scientists conducted an analysis of the flight time and distance, concluding that on a standard trajectory the missile could have a maximum range of more than 6,700 kilometers. That would make it capable of hitting all parts of Alaska but short of reaching the US mainland or Hawaii. On the other side, the US military tracked the missile’s path for 37 minutes concluding that a flatter trajectory might give the missile a range of approximately 4,160 miles. Pentagon officials told NBC News they believed North Korea had successfully launched its first ICBM.
As expected, this started the furious reaction from US President Donald Trump who stated: “North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy (Kim Jong-Un) 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!”
The US are also pushing the UN Security Council for harsher measures against North Korea even not excluding a military action. While Russia and China condemned the test, they also called for restraint on both sides, and to solve the matter through diplomatic dialogue instead.
This was the first test by North Korea of an ICBM, and uncertainty is surrounding the Hwasong-14. Previously North Korea displayed two different types of ICBM at its military parades: the KN-08 with a range of 11,500 Km, and the KN-14 with a range of 10,000 Km. Nevertheless, it widely believed that the Hwasong-14 is development of the KN-08 or Hwasong-13.
What we know about the Hwasong-14
The Hwasong-14 appears to be an entirely new missile that had never been seen before and it is puzzling experts as until now it was widely believed that the North Koreans were working on the missiles paraded in the past: KN-08 and KN-14.
From initial image is believed that the missile is a two stage version of the Hwasong-12, an IRBM launched in May 2017, and the inclusion of a second stage appears to have boosted its range to around 7,000-8,000 kilometers. The first stage is very similar to the Hwasong-12 and ignited by a liquid fueled engine, while less is known about the second stage although is believed to be a retrograde rocket. This for many is a clear distinction from the previously seen KN-08 and KN-14 designs, which have never been tested. However, a similarity with the KN-08 is that the new ICBM uses a converted China-built 16-wheel WS-51200 truck converted into a transporter-erector.
The KN-08, also known under the names Rodong-C and Hwasong-13, is a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile developed by North Korea and shown as a mock-up in October 2015. The missile is a TEL-mounted mobile IRBM/ICBM with a length between 18.7 to 19 m (although improvements can be longer) and with a diameter of 1,8 m. The missile is a derivation of Soviet versions of the R-29/SS-N-8, Sawfly, RSM-40 Vysota utilizing a No-dong-B/NK-07/NK-11 warhead. It is widely believed that North Korean scientists developed the Hwasong in order to replace the Taep ‘o-dong 2 with a modernized strategic ballistic missile intended to match the Taep ‘o-dong-2 space booster capability. The first public appearance of the KN-08 is dated April 15th, 2012, when six inert mock-ups were shown during a military parade. During this parade, the KN-08 were displayed on top of 16-wheel transporter erector launches (TEL) believed to be based on frames made by the Chinese Wanshan Special Vehicles Co. Inc. factory. The TELs were Chinese WS51200 trucks exported to North Korea for lumber transport, and then converted them into TELs by installing hydraulic gear and controls to erect a missile. On July 27th, 2013 during the DPRK 60th anniversary military parade to commemorate the Korean War, four Hwasong-13 / KN-08’s were displayed showing improvements. Again, other mock-ups were paraded on October 11th, 2015, during the 70th anniversary of the founding of Korean Workers Party. In this parade, the missile appeared to have been short in length but with a larger in diameter third stage, in addition to a re-entry vehicle section design, which has led to suggestions that North Korea might have perfected nuclear warhead miniaturization. The KN-14, was a missile shorter than KN-08, and seen as a further development of the KN-08. It shared with the previous the design derived from the Soviet-era R-27/SS-N-6 missiles. However, on 14 May 2017, North Korea successfully tested the Hwasong-12, a single stage missile, with a maximum range between 3,700 and 6,000 km, and it now appeared that this is the base of the new Hwasong-14.
Pyongyang had so far conducted five nuclear tests, and in one of those claimed to have tested a hydrogen-based weapon. Some experts disputed the claim, saying that all weapons tested were comparably less destructive atom bombs.
Although it is now clear that the North Koreans have made huge improvements to their missile capabilities, there are still some doubts whether they can successfully deploy a real ICBM threat. The DPRK has been able to launch a satellite and space booster and the Hwasong-14 clearly showed that the mock-ups paraded in Pyongyang were in reality developments ready to be tested. The nuclear tests, the acquisition of TELs and improvements displayed during the last 2 years show that North Korea is on the road of achieving soon the deterrent they were looking for. Although it is unclear whether it can reach as far as California or mainland US, it is now certain that it can put into range Alaska, part of Western Canada, and Russia.
Although experts believe the Hwasong-14 could reach over 6,000 Km, at the current rate, the DPRK would be able to develop an ICBM capable of reaching US mainland only between 2021-2026. They also argued whether North Korea is able to acquire more technological advancements, as the missile development is based on old designs dated to 2011-12, and due to the fact that the regime has conducted a limited number of tests. Another aspect pointed is related to the fuel used by North Korea for its missiles. In addition, all missiles are liquid fuelled, meaning that the preparation, fueling, and launch could take hours, therefore giving to the enemies time for pre-emptive strikes. However, it is also believed that North Korea may also be studying and building silos, where each missile is pre-fueled and ready to be launched in just few minutes, or using the already extensive underground facilities for storage and preparation.
The Options Left
Leaving aside the technical and scientific data, the launch has been a success for the regime opening to the question on what is going to happen next.
North Korea has once again surprised everybody on the speed, accuracy and advancements displayed by the latest test, even with its shortcomings. It is an undeniable success under a “diplomatic marketing” point of view, showcasing a threat to induce the enemies in cooperating. Surely, Pyongyang has already achieved the deterrent it was looking for and craved in the last two decades, as having even one missile able to reach Alaska it is a nightmare for US military forces.
What Pyongyang is really seeking with these tests? Is really going to push the US to war? Looking at the facts Pyongyang is trying to achieve the real goal set by former leader Kim Jong-Il: a bilateral and equal position at a negotiation table. The nuclear deterrent is a safe net against any desire of reckless action by the US for a change of regime, and on this North Korea is not showing any signs of madness, facts in the last 20 years speak for themselves. This is the last option of a regime that would not stand a chance in an open war with the US, but where incredible damage and huge cost in material and human life can be inflicted by North Korea. Especially Japan and South Korea would bear the majority of the response, while China and Russia unlikely would accept a nuclear armageddon on their doorstep. Under a diplomatic and geopolitical point of view, North Korea can also count on the reluctance of US allies in a war full on uncertainty and consequences, as well as having two permanent UNSC powers ready to veto any military action. No matter how annoyed or angered are the Chinese and the Russians, they surely do not want the US to alter the balance in East Asia even if this means keeping alive a regime that barely stands together.
The US with Trump appeared between desires to show force and act unilaterally, and the justified frustration of seeing two decades of “blackmailing diplomacy” as the main responsible for North Korean defiance. It is true that nothing has ever worked, as Trump said, and that past presidents just continued to accept the blackmailing game from Pyongyang, but it is also true that all presidents missed the real signal coming from Pyongyang and put forward by King jong-Il: bilateral and equal negotiations. China and Russia on one side, and Japan and South Korea on the other, even though with different reasons, are calling on Washington to give diplomacy a real chance. The six nations talks have failed in the past due to North Korean intransigence in speaking to US directly on one side, and due to US intransigent to accept a direct talk with North Korea on the other. The US “dream” of using China to pressure Pyongyang first, and then threaten Beijing of consequences if unable to obtain results, failed miserably at a time when the US are building a Pacific counterstrategy to Chinese designs in the South China Sea. How this could ever work? On the other, the US are increasingly arming and conduction military drills and provocations, similar to those NATO carries in Eastern Europe, that certainly will not send a signal to Pyongyang to stop its defense build up, as well as Russia is not willing to let the US using unilateral action. Finally, Japan and South Korea are between the US mammoth military machine, and their fear of being dragged into a war with the reckless neighbour from which they will bear much of the destruction. In this optic, the six nation talks are dead no matter what. The only possible way out is a 2+4 talk as proposed by China and Russia for long time, where the US and North Korea dialogue, China/Russia act as North Korea’s guarantors and Japan/South Korea do the same for the US.
Give peace a chance sang John Lennon, hopefully both President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un will listen to that, because as strange it can sound never before the two countries have been so similar in having an erratic and so unpredictable leadership. At last something in common.