North Korea Launches Biggest ICBM Yet, Despite U.S. Sanctions
A record-setting missile launch sends a signal that U.S. pressure is not deterring Pyongyang from its single-minded goal.
North Korea on Tuesday tested its longest-range missile to date, an intercontinental ballistic missile potentially capable of hitting the east coast of the United States. Coming after a two-month hiatus, the latest launch of the new missile — dubbed the Hwasong-15 — underscored that warnings from President Donald Trump and a new wave of U.S. sanctions meant to force the regime to halt its nuclear weapons program have so far failed to rein in Pyongyang.
The missile, fired from Sain Ni, flew over 600 miles and peaked at an altitude of about 2,900 miles above the earth, higher than the record 2,800-mile altitude reached in a July test. Missile experts said the long flight time — more than 50 minutes — and high trajectory suggested that the missile could have as much as 8,000-mile range, enough to put Washington, D.C. in the crosshairs. The U.S. Defense Department confirmed that the launch was an ICBM.
Speaking at the White House Tuesday afternoon, Trump made only passing mention of the launch, eschewing the warlike rhetoric he has used in the past to describe potential U.S. responses to North Korean missile tests.
“We will take care of it,” Trump said. “It is a situation that we will handle.” Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear program “endangers world peace, regional peace, and the United States,” said Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
North Korean state television said Wednesday that “we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power.”
The launch came days after a decision by the Trump administration to list the regime as a state sponsor of terrorism. That provocative move followed a months-long push by the White House to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang through fresh sanctions and appeals to China to curtail its trade with the isolated nation.
“It’s one hell of a way to break the testing pause,” said Vipin Narang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The missile likely carried a mock warhead, which is lighter than an actual nuclear warhead, “but even with a heavier warhead, we now have to assume the entire continental U.S. is within range” of the new missile, Narang said.
During the late-summer pause, North Korean engineers continued to test new engine technologies, and “it looks like they tested an improved second-stage engine earlier this month, and my guess is they put that on today’s missile. They are trying to show us without a doubt that D.C. and New York are within range,” he added.
American intelligence officials have said they believe North Korea will be able to place a small nuclear warhead on an ICBM sometime in 2018.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement saying “diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now.”
But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) took a more hawkish approach. “We’re headed toward a war if things don’t change,” he told CNN Tuesday. “The president is not going to allow North Korea to have a nuclear weapon in their hands that can hit America…If we have to go to war to stop this, we will,” he said.
Critics have accused the White House of failing to pursue a coherent diplomatic strategy to accompany new sanctions and shows of military force, and have said that Trump’s often hostile rhetoric and tweets could jeopardize any potential dialogue with the regime. The missile test shows “there is a real price to our continued disinterest in diplomacy,” a Democratic congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy.
The Trump administration, which has failed to fill numerous vacancies for senior positions at the Pentagon and the State Department, still has no ambassador in South Korea or assistant secretary for East Asia.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Navy dispatched three aircraft carrier strike groups off the Korean coast for exercises with the South Korean navy, the first time in a decade so much American firepower was amassed in the region.
Some analysts suggested that North Korea, which launched the missile in the dark around 3 a.m. local time, was trying to decrease the possibility of a pre-emptive strike or missile intercept by the United States.
This post was updated with comments form North Korean state television.
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary