According to South Korea’s lead official on North Korea, the Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, North Korea has been conducting missile engine and fuel tests that could enable it to have a fully functional nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as early as next year.
Today’s abrupt firing of a ballistic missile eastward from its Pyongsong base has unmistakably created more tensions around the issue, with experts expecting North Korea to have a working nuclear missile within the next six months.
The South Korean government has been monitoring Pyongyang’s missile-related activities in the recent weeks, with very few indications that another missile test like the one from Sept.15 will be conducted in the near future. However, a report by Reuters earlier this Tuesday said that the U.S. military has detected activity that might suggest a missile test taking place in the following days. With today’s abrupt launch breaking the two and half month hiatus, it seems that all hope of further nuclear tests being halted completely has disappeared.
With both the U.S. and South Korea hoping that the newly imposed sanctions on North Korea would slow down or postpone nuclear missile tests in the next couple of months, today’s launch comes as a bleak reminder that Pyongyang stops its military ambitions for nothing.
The U.S. has reenlisted North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism on Nov.20, with President Donald Trump making clear that neither he nor his government had any intentions of easing his policy of applying “maximum” pressure and sanctions to North Korea. Until North Korea agreed to join the negotiating process of its denuclearization, the U.S. would continue to put pressure on Pyongyang.
Tuesday’s missile launch is facing a harsh debate on whether or not it was just a scheduled test or a blatant provocation aimed at the U.S. and its newly imposed sanctions. A clear, black and white answer to this question might not be apparent anytime soon, but what remains clear is the uneasiness and tension the missile launch has caused. According to the Pentagon, the missile launched was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a type of guided ballistic missile with a minimum range of 3,400 miles designed to carry one or more thermonuclear warheads.
Today’s event has also caused the Pentagon to foreshadow the President’s response and issue a statement assuring the public that the missile did not pose a threat to the U.S. or its allies, and confirming the fact that the military’s antiballistic defense system will able to deter any missiles potentially aimed at U.S. soil.
Despite frequent threats, North Korean Nuclear Weapons might still be in the development phase
Despite the fact that the most recent missile launch succeeded in raising tensions with the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, evidence suggests that the missiles have still not passed the development phase.
According to the New York Times, some analysts have suggested that the recent hiatus in missile tests indicated that North Korean engineers are still trying to deal with challenges presented by the weight of a nuclear warhead. According to David Wright, physicist and co-director of the UCS Global Security Program, yesterday’s missile flew for about 54 and had an estimated range of 8,000 miles, which is significantly more than the missiles tested on July 4 and July 28, which have flown for 37 and 48 minutes, respectively. However, the increased range of the missile is most likely due to it carrying a very light, mock warhead. A plutonium or a uranium warhead would weigh significantly more, drastically reducing the range of the missile.
“They still need to clear technical hurdles in long-range missile technologies, including the re-entry know-how,” the Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, said on Tuesday. “Some experts have said it will take them two or three years, but we also need to note that the North has been developing its technologies faster than expected.”
Surpassing all expectations has been a staple of North Korea’s nuclear development program. All of the predictions the U.S. or South Korean militaries have made on missile launches and fuel tests have happened days, and sometimes even weeks earlier than expected. Recent engine and fuel tests might bring forth further improvements to the missile’s range even when carrying a nuclear-tipped warhead, enabling it, in theory, to reach New York City or Washington DC as early as next year.
With North Korea often celebrating its key anniversaries with major weapons tests and extensive parades showcasing their military might, Minister Cho has stated that he would not be surprised if Pyongyang declared it has completed its nuclear arms capabilities next year. September 9 next year marks 70 years since the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, an occasion which was followed by elaborate military parades, missile launches and airstrike drills in the previous years.