North Korea has tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that may be capable of hitting the northwestern U.S., prompting condemnation from Washington, but leaving it with “limited options” to rein in the Kim Jong Un regime, experts said Wednesday.
The test, which came hours ahead of the U.S. Independence Day holiday on Tuesday, was the North’s first of its Hwasong-14 missile, which the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said successfully demonstrated its ability to reenter a warhead into the earth’s atmosphere and target the “heart of the United States.”
The missile flew for 37 minutes and had a lofted trajectory of 1,700 miles (2,735 kilometers), which some analysts said makes it capable of reaching all of Alaska and represents a significant stride in North Korea’s development of its weapons program.
The launch follows at least ten other missile tests by North Korea this year alone, including the trial of a new rocket engine and the firing of what were believed to be several anti-ship missiles in June. The North has also tested nuclear weapons at least five times since 2006, including twice last year.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the latest missile test “a new escalation of the threat” to the United States and its allies, and the U.S. Army and South Korean military responded Tuesday by launching their own missiles into South Korean territorial waters in a show of force.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has since vowed to use “the full range of capabilities at our disposal against the growing threat,” while General Vincent Brooks, the top military commander in South Korea, said in a statement Wednesday that the U.S. and South Korea are prepared to go to war with the North if ordered, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.
Kim Jong Un was quoted by the KCNA as saying that Pyongyang will not negotiate with the U.S. to give up its weapons unless Washington abandons its “hostile policy” against the North, and analysts agree that the latest launch has reduced U.S. options to address the situation.
Washington has mulled military action against the North, but such a move could trigger retaliatory artillery strikes by Pyongyang against South Korea, whose capital Seoul is located only 35 miles away from the North Korean border and is home to around 10 million people.
The United Nations Security Council, chaired by North Korea’s only major ally—China, held an emergency meeting Wednesday, during which U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said that Pyongyang’s actions were “quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution,” and that Washington would use its military forces “if we must,” though it prefers not to.
The missile test also came days before leaders from the Group of 20 nations are to meet in Germany and discuss possible measures against North Korea’s weapons program, which continues despite U.N. sanctions.
Trump is expected to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G20 meeting, and while both China and Russia have called for North Korea to suspend its missile program, the two nations oppose resolving the crisis on the Korean peninsula through the use of force or economic sanctions against Pyongyang.
The U.S. has urged China—the North’s biggest trading partner—to pressure Pyongyang on abandoning weapons development, but Beijing has been reluctant to endorse tougher sanctions against its northeastern neighbor, such as an oil embargo, ending acceptance of guest workers, and penalties against Chinese firms conducting business in North Korea.
Diplomats also say that China has failed to fully enforcing existing international sanctions against the Kim regime.
On Wednesday, Bonnie Glaser, a senior advisor for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington, told RFA’s Korean Service that the U.S. now “has limited options” to deal with North Korea, including sanctions, military pressure and diplomacy.
“This first test of an ICBM will drive Trump to press for more sanctions,” she said, adding that when the U.S. president meets with Xi at the G20, he is likely to “ask him to reduce crude oil exports [to North Korea].”
“The U.N. Security Council could [also] pass a resolution that mandates a cap on oil exports to North Korea.”
Yun Sun, a senior associate with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, said that North Korea had demonstrated a credible threat of a deliverable nuclear weapon, earning it a strategic deterrence against a potential U.S. attack and a perceived guarantee of its national security.
By developing the technology that previous efforts were aimed to prevent, Sun said, North Korea had changed “the goal and pace of any follow up strategy.”
“The U.S. doesn’t have a lot of effective options to deal with North Korea’s ICBM test,” he said.
“The military option is clearly not a good one, given North Korea’s ability to retaliate and attack Seoul. More sanctions might be in order, but they have not been effective in stopping North Korea from any of its nuclear development so far.”
According to Sun, Washington could choose to negotiate directly with Pyongyang, “but now that North Korea has achieved the ICBM capability, there is the question of what the talk will be about.”
“Denuclearization is unlikely to happen, so we are talking about how to engage North Korea, which equates to rewarding bad behavior.”
Harry Kazianis, director of Defense Studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest, said the latest launch shows that Kim “will do anything” to maintain power in North Korea, and predicted upcoming tests of “a missile that can hit all of the United States” and possibly a hydrogen bomb.
“Nuclear weapons atop ICBMs are the ultimate insurance policy, for if Washington ever thought about attacking, North Korea could kill millions with the push of a button,” he said.
Kazianis said that the biggest impact of the ICBM test “will be on China,” as Trump will push harder than ever to get Beijing on board with international measures to rein in the North’s weapons program.
But he added that China is unlikely to end its support for the Kim regime, when the alternative could mean millions of refugees from North Korea streaming over its border or the reunification of the Korean peninsula under U.S. ally Seoul.
“Beijing, beyond some token moves, was never going to help Washington in any substantive way in dealing with the North's nuclear and missile programs,” he said.
“Beijing does not like the status-quo, but for them, the situation could be far worse.”
Reported by Kyung Ha Rhee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun and Kyung Ha Rhee. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.