Will North Korea’s Missile Launch a New U.S. Policy?
North Korea launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), probably the Musudan (Hwasong-10), from western North Korea on Sunday morning (North Korea time). It is no coincidence that the provocation came during a working dinner in Florida between President Trump and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Both leaders view North Korea as a threat, and both leaders said as much in statements responding to the launch. But for Trump, in particular, this is a crucial moment to set the tone for his presidency.
This would be Pyongyang’s ninth test of the Musudan IRBM, with the eight previous tests all happening in 2016. This aggressive testing suggests that North Korea is interested in deploying the missile on an accelerated timeline. One expert assesses that North Korea could intend to deploy the missile in 2017. A technical analysis of the successful June 2016 Musudan test suggests a range of 3,200 kilometers, although some have reported 2,500 to 4,000 kilometers with a 500 to 1,200-kilogram payload that could reach Guam.
The Musudan is not an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), but its technology is transferable to ICBM development. Based on a technical analysis from a test last April, North Korea could use two engines from the Musudan in the first stage of its road mobile ICBMs (KN-08/KN-14), which have not been flight-tested. This KN-08/KN-14 configuration could deliver a nuclear weapon as far as 10,000 to 13,000 kilometers, which would put New York and Washington, DC within range. This ICBM could be operational by 2020.
The Musudan IRBM would also make an attractive item for sale to foreign customers, including Iran, for hard currency that North Korea desperately needs. Reports suggest that Iran acquired a version of the Musudan in 2005. Remarkably, North Korea-Iran cooperation in this area is not technically prohibited by the 2015 nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Indeed, this is one of the deal’s many flaws.
In response to Sunday’s launch, the Trump administration must immediately pursue four core policy elements: 1) increase support to our allies, including accelerating the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system; 2) issue a direct warning to North Korea, clearly stating the consequences for its provocative actions; 3) apply additional sanctions on North Korea and increase implementation of current sanctions; and 4) get tough with China, by presenting a stark choice to Chinese banks: stop serving as a financial lifeline to Pyongyang or face the consequences, including significant fines or other sanctions.
North Korea is a thorny foreign policy challenge that the Obama administration deferred with its policy of “strategic patience.” Sunday’s launch is an opportunity to recalibrate and make it clear to North Korea that further provocations will elicit increasingly harsh responses.
Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as a foreign policy fellow in the Office of Senator Marco Rubio and an official at the U.S. Departments of the Treasury and State. Follow him on Twitter @_ARuggiero