Four years ago Donald Trump said he would never allow the North Koreans to threaten the continental US. So what was the message being sent by the Pyongyang regime when it paraded a huge new intercontinental missile this month?
Trump’s promise was already looking threadbare the year after he made it when North Korea tested the Hwasong-15, an ICBM with a range estimated at 13,000 kilometres – sufficient to reach any part of the US. The North Koreans haven’t yet carried out a test to prove that range, but with less than two weeks to go to polling day, they have done something rather more clever.
Now they have paraded an entirely new ICBM, provisionally designated the Hwaseong-16. It’s a lot larger than the Hwaseong-15 ( ‘Increased Deterrence’, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 21 October). It is certainly a major achievement and most likely based on the Hwaseong-15. Given the rockets’ relative sizes, the Hwaseong-16 could probably deliver one large thermonuclear warhead or several small warheads over a distance that would cover the whole of the US. On that basis, Trump’s claim of never allowing the North Koreans to get to such a point seems still more dubious.
But why show off a new missile rather than the true capabilities of the older one? This may be a canny choice on the part of the North Koreans. If they had decided to do a further test of the Hwaseong-15 just before the election it might have been an embarrassing failure, as early-stage testing of a missile quite often is. Better, therefore, to parade the new weapon even if it is, realistically, years from being operational.
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Perhaps the North Koreans have made far more rapid progress than expected and perhaps they are ready to test the Hwaseong-16 and deploy it quite quickly, but Michael Elleman at the North Korea analysis website 38 North is highly sceptical, and his assessment is probably shared by other knowledgeable analysts.
The Hwaseong-16 would face a few problems in a genuine conflict. For example, its fuel is liquid – most ICBMs use solid fuel – and together with its eleven-axle launch vehicle probably weighs around 160 tonnes. Transporting such a huge missile any distance will be fraught with danger of leakage of highly combustible liquids, the more so if the erector-launcher strays off North Korea’s limited network of high-grade roads and seeks to go cross-country. That, though, would be necessary in time of war and so it would be far safer not to tank up the missile until it was at the launch site.
The problem with this is that this fuelling process would take some hours during which time the missile would be highly vulnerable to observation and attack. This is one of the reasons other powers have long taken the solid-fuel route: the first such ICBM, the US Minuteman I, was first deployed nearly sixty years ago.
More generally, given what is known about the whole North Korean programme, it would most likely take several years to develop and deploy the Hwaseong-16. Meanwhile the North Koreans are also developing a range of solid-fuelled missiles, which would be a more likely option: the same parade that heralded the Hwaseong-16 also included a smaller solid-fuel submarine-launched missile for North Korea’s much-delayed missile submarine programme.
So why stage this parade just now? There are two likely reasons. One is for domestic consumption: the new missile is a massive weapon and will be hugely impressive as proof that the government is an international power to be reckoned with, as well as a great source of national pride.
The second is both to remind Trump that he has failed to curtail the regime and to tell Joe Biden that, if elected, he will need to compromise with North Korea and preferably sooner than later.
Trump may still use the last couple of campaigning weeks to raise the issue and even give Pyongyang some kind of ultimatum. That, though, is risky since the parade gives a very strong impression that Trump, on this issue, has been a failure. Biden would no doubt be delighted to run with that particular argument.