Days after Donald Trump’s much-discussed crossing into North Korea at the demilitarised zone, a little-noticed report from United States Forces Korea confirmed what some analysts had suspected: North Korea’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile has the range to reach all parts of the US.
The new estimate is based on a test flight of the Hwaseong-15 ICBM in November 2017. Because the North Koreans can’t shoot their missiles over their maximum range without hitting other countries, they test-fire the weapons at very high angles, demonstrating the likely range by the altitude reached. The Hwaseong-15 reached an altitude of 4,475 kilometres and covered a distance of 950 kilometres on the ground; US analysts used this information to calculate an estimated full linear range of 12,875 kilometres. The distance from Pyongyang to New York is 10,900 kilometres.
This compares with a range of 10,000 kilometres for the missile’s immediate predecessor, the Hwaseong-14, which put much of the continental US within range, and 5,500 kilometres for the earlier Hwaseong-13. At the time of the Hwaseong-15 launch the North Korean Central News Agency claimed that it could carry a super-large heavy warhead, implying that it would be well able to carry a substantial nuclear bomb.
Despite this major threat to the US, the last major crisis with North Korea eased seven months after the test launch with the summit meeting in Singapore. Trump’s position then was that North Korea had to fully denuclearise and also end its long-range missile programme in return for an easing of sanctions.
None of this was actually agreed but there was some progress: the North Koreans ceased long-range missile tests and the US limited joint military exercises with the South Koreans. Many independent analysts took the view that Kim Jong-un had come away with most of what he wanted, since the risk of military escalation by the US was much diminished whereas he had walked the world stage with the US president. In a world where symbolism is important, this was notable progress.
Some commentators remarked that we should be thankful that Trump’s ego was so great that he could not see this, being content once again to see himself as the great deal-maker. As long as that continues – and it was powerfully represented by the recent DMZ meeting – calmness might prevail. The range of this missile, however, is an awkward and potentially dangerous sting in the tail.
Feeling lucky, Don?
When tensions with North Korea rose nearly two years ago Donald Trump made one policy absolutely clear: he would, by the end of his first term in office, take any action necessary to prevent North Korea being able to target nuclear weapons. The confirmed range of the Hwaseong-15 indicates that North Korea can now claim to do just that.
Some questions remain. One is that the ‘throw weight’ of the missile is not known, only estimated, so it is uncertain whether it could actually deliver a nuclear warhead over the full distance. Also, a major new missile will usually get many tests before it is ready for action, whereas the Hwaseong-15 has had just one.
When we come to matters of symbolism, though, that is hardly the point. If there was to be a serious ratcheting up of tension in the next eighteen months, Kim could all too easily claim that his forces could threaten the US, given that both nuclear warheads and a full-range delivery system have been tested.
He could also claim – regardless of the truth – that numerous missiles have been built in underground factories, as well as more nuclear warheads. He could point to the fact that the Hwaseong-15 missile can be launched from a road vehicle, making it difficult to target in a pre-emptive attack. In the febrile atmosphere of a crisis, who could argue otherwise?
If Kim can do it, why not Iran?
From the US point of view this also needs to be seen alongside the tensions with Iran. Here, Trump’s stated aim is to negotiate a far stronger nuclear deal with Tehran, greatly extending the current ten-year span, while also bringing the Iranian missile programme under control. In reality there is much more to it than that, with the Washington hawks wanting an end to Iranian involvement in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, and the super-hawks wanting regime change.
There appears to be little chance of Iran meeting the US demands, while most Iranians seem to back the regime in its opposition to what they see as unwarranted outside interference. Bearing in mind the economic maladministration and corruption in Iran, it may seem surprising that the regime retains support, but the Iranian sense of an independent state with thousands of years of history is very strong.
Perhaps a deal can still be done in which each side gives a bit. Here that the recent North Korea developments become significant and will be watched with some interest in Tehran. Barely two years ago Trump was threatening North Korea with a rain of fire yet now it is all sweetness and light, at least so far.
Even so, it has now been confirmed that Pyongyang will be able to challenge the US before the end of the president’s first term. Trump may still see himself as the great deal-maker: after all it is not often that a world leader comes along with such a level of narcissism that it gives egotism a bad name. It will, though, be noted in Tehran and will surely influence how the Iranians chose to deal with him.