North Korea’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) believed capable of striking the continental U.S. drew strong condemnation from Washington Wednesday, with the White House vowing to increase sanctions on the Kim Jong Un regime for its first launch in more than two months.
But observers told RFA’s Korean Service that the test may have been carefully intended to prod the U.S. to enter into dialogue, rather than provoke a military response.
On Tuesday, North Korea said it had “successfully” tested a new ICBM called the Hwasong-15, which it claimed could target all of the U.S. with a “super large heavy warhead” and signified that “our rocket development process has been completed.”
North Korea’s first launch since Sept. 15 lobbed a missile 2,800 miles (4,500 kilometers) into the atmosphere and kept it aloft for nearly an hour—sending it farther than any of its previous tests and more than 10 times higher than the International Space Station.
Analysts say that when accounting for a standard trajectory, the missile would have a range of more than 8,100 miles (13,000 kilometers)—more than capable of hitting the U.S. capital, which lies 6,850 miles (11,000 kilometers) from Pyongyang.
The launch quickly drew condemnation from U.S. President Donald Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that Pyongyang’s provocations “will be handled” and that “additional major sanctions will be imposed on North Korea today,” following a call with President Xi Jinping of China, North Korea’s most significant supporter.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the White House has “a long list of additional potential sanctions, some of which involve … financial institutions,” adding that the U.S. Treasury Department would announce them when they are “ready to roll out.”
In a statement, the White House said that Trump had “emphasized the need for China to use all available levers to convince North Korea to end its provocations and return to the path of denuclearization” in his call with Xi Jinping.
A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed “grave concern and opposition” to North Korea’s test In a press briefing on Wednesday, saying Beijing is committed to implementing existing United Nations Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang and working towards denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
But Beijing said it opposed any “unilateral sanctions or ‘long-arm jurisdiction’” outside the U.N. framework that the U.S. might be considering.
Implications of test
Tuesday’s test flies in the face of earlier threats by Trump of the possibility of military action against the North in response to its illicit weapons development, though analysts have suggested the trajectory of the missile’s flight may have been calculated by Pyongyang to avoid confrontation with the U.S.
And while North Korea claimed that the test signaled the completion of its missile program, observers said it was unclear whether Pyongyang had met all of the necessary technological requirements necessary to make the North a true nuclear power.
Dae-sung Song, the former president of the Sejong Institute in South Korea, said that North Korea had not yet demonstrated that it has a reliable weapons program in place that would give it leverage in negotiations with the West.
“The U.S. won’t be concerned about North Korea unless its ICBMs are completely developed,” he said.
“When a completely developed nuclear weapon is deliverable, that would be a true threat to the U.S. and would create a chance [for North Korea] to make deals with Washington.”
Sangsoo Lee, senior research fellow and project manager of the Korean Peninsula Project at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Sweden, said Tuesday’s launch was intended not to provoke conflict, but rather to leave room for dialogue.
“North Korea’s plan was to complete its nuclear program within this year and although it says the program was completed with the latest launch, there is still a month before the end of 2017,” he said.
“It’s not clear whether this test will bring the U.S. to the negotiating table or not. North Korea is testing the possibility of negotiations with the U.S., but it certainly has prepared something else to show. I think North Korea is preparing to adopt a different strategy for next year.”
Han Bum Cho, a senior researcher at South Korea’s Korea Institute of National Unification, said the North is trying to leave room for negotiations with the U.S. and that its latest test was an attempt to prod Washington without overstepping boundaries.
“Kim Jong Un’s plans did not lead him to the point where he wanted to be, so he needed additional provocation,” he said.
But In Duk Kang, South Korea’s former Minister of Unification, said the international community is losing its patience with North Korea, and expects a stronger response to the test.
“There is now a stronger possibility that [the U.S.] takes the military option,” he said.
“And while China is imposing sanctions by restricting enterprises in [cities near its border with North Korea], it isn’t doing enough, so I foresee that they might consider cutting off their supply of oil.”
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Harry Kazianis, director of Defense Studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest, told RFA that the North will need to continue to demonstrate that it is making progress in developing its weapons capabilities in order to achieve its goal of forcing the U.S. into negotiations.
“As we get closer to the Winter Olympics in February in South Korea … that might be a time where the North Koreans feel even more emboldened to do something even bigger—whether it’s an even more expansive ICBM test or potentially even detonating an underground nuclear device to basically show the world that they are a bona fide nuclear power,” he said.
“So what happened yesterday might just be a tip of the iceberg.”
Kazianis said that while North Korea is unlikely to have completed its weapons program, “they are probably close,” and analysis of the test in coming days may indicate how far they have progressed.
“We know the North Koreans have the range to hit the United States, but what we don’t know is when that missile goes up into the air can the warhead that comes off it actually land on a target,” he said.
Kazianis noted that a North Korean official had recently told CNN that North Korea’s nuclear development program would not be considered completed until Pyongyang had both successfully launched a long-range ICBM and conducted an atmospheric test of a nuclear weapon.
“If they’re considering doing an atmospheric test, they’re not going to want to do it around the time of the Olympics,” he said, adding that the North would be more likely to conduct one “within the next few weeks.”
“[But] that would be highly provocative and … would unite the whole planet against North Korea.”
Reported by Yongjae Mok for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.