North Korea continued its defiance of the international community with the test of yet another ballistic missile Wednesday morning. In response to this latest outrage, concerned governments continue to try to muster a concerted effort to constrain North Korean behavior and get Pyongyang to end its provocations, return to compliance with the nuclear nonproliferation regime and become a responsible and law-abiding member of the community of nations. Still, flaws in the strategy to do so remain unfixed and must be remedied if this effort is to succeed.
North Korea conducted its third test of what is thought to be an intercontinental ballistic missile — following the first two in July — in the early hours of Wednesday. The missile traveled approximately 1,000 km in 53 minutes before landing about 250 km west of Aomori Prefecture in Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan.
Significantly, the missile traveled on a “lofted” trajectory, meaning that it went farther into the atmosphere — higher than 4,000 km in altitude — to test its engines and potential range, without threatening distant countries. The flight parameters have forced most observers to conclude that if the missile had flown on a standard trajectory, it would have been capable of traveling 13,000 km, which would put the east coast of the United States within its range.
As those same experts caution, there is no indication of the type and size of warhead that the missile carried. A missile can fly a longer distance when it does not have a heavy payload. North Korea claimed that the new ICBM it test-fired is capable of carrying a heavy nuclear warhead. Equally important, North Korea has not demonstrated either the targeting ability or the mastery of re-entry technologies that would allow it to attack a distant adversary with precision.
Still, the consensus is that if North Korea has not mastered those capabilities, it soon will. The country has conducted a rigorous series of missile tests: This week’s launch is the 16th test (in which 22 missiles were fired) since February, an unprecedented rate.
International condemnation was quick to follow. The United Nations denounced the test as “a clear violation of Security Council resolutions and shows complete disregard for the united view of the international community.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said: “We can never accept such a reckless action that tramples on the strong commitment of the international community to resolve the matter peacefully. The international community needs to unite and completely implement the sanctions measures. We will not yield to any provocation and will maximize pressure on North Korea.” U.S. President Donald Trump called it “a situation that we will handle. Nothing changed. … We take it very seriously.”
The U.N. Security Council was set to meet in an emergency session Wednesday afternoon, while the U.S. and Canada will convene a meeting of nations that contribute forces to the U.N. Command in South Korea to discuss ways to “counter North Korea’s threat to international peace.” South Korea similarly denounced the test and responded with a message of its own. Within minutes of the test, South Korean forces carried out a “precision missile strike drill,” whose flight distance matched that of the North Korean missile and landed off the east coast of South Korea.
In most cases, North Korea tests reflect its own schedule and technological imperatives. In this case, however, Pyongyang was likely sending a signal to Washington and the world. North Korea typically does not test in the winter because of inclement weather. And, indeed, testing had been in abeyance for about 10 weeks after a busy summer.
But Trump’s recent Asia tour, in which North Korea was a priority in his conversations, and the subsequent decision to relist Pyongyang as a state supporter of terrorism may have inspired that government to send a message that it was not intimidated. This test will make it easier for Washington and its allies to tighten the screws. In addition to still stronger sanctions, U.S. envoys are pushing other governments to cut ties with Pyongyang and cut off other sources of income for the regime, such as the use of North Korean workers as foreign labor — a practice widespread in the Middle East and Russia.
North Korea insists that its missile and nuclear programs are defensive and a means to protect the country from a hostile U.S., oblivious to the cycle of action and reaction it has initiated or accelerated. The U.S. insists that it “remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearization,” but its patience is running out. The challenge is for the U.S. and partners like Japan to articulate a diplomatic settlement that Pyongyang can support. Thus far, sticks are far more prominent than carrots. That may be emotionally gratifying but is unlikely to produce a deal that endures.