North Korea has successfully launched a BM-25 Musudan/ Hwasong-10 IRBM from a facility in Wonsan. The launch reached a height of 1000 km and landed 400 km downrange of Wonsan in the Sea of Japan. The missile has a theoretical range in the order of thousands of kilometers, long enough to hit Guam. This test however, used a high apogee flight path that allowed the test to avoid Japanese air space as it flew across the Sea of Japan. The high angle launch would theoretically also allow the missile to avoid most ballistic missile defense systems on it’s way to targets in South Korea should the DPRK be so inclined.*
From a technical perspective, this is a big step. The Musudan is much more complex than the DPRK’s previous Scud based missiles. It’s construction is more advanced, it’s engines are more powerful and the design is much more efficient. This means longer ranges with heavier payloads. This was the first successful test utilizing the Musudan technology and paves a dangerous path forward for the DPRK missile program.
What I fear the North Koreans now have is the technological basis for an advanced nuclear deterrent. The Musudan technology is the basis for North Korea’s proposed nuclear capable ICBM; the KN-08.
The KN-08 uses modified Musudan engines in a three stage design. Such a weapon would be capable of carrying a a 1000 kg nuclear warhead far enough to hit the continental United States. North Korea has already shown off these missiles and a mock-up of a compact nuclear warhead able to fit on the proposed missile. Now they have proof that such a system is technically plausible.
Countering the threat
To counter this threat the United States has limited options. Obama has already ruled out engagement, as he does not trust Kim to uphold any bargain. Clinton (the next likely president) is even less prone to this sort of diplomacy. As such, a moratorium on testing, or other largely voluntary actions would carry no weight. Military action is also completely out of the question for the time being.
Right now, sanctions are our best option, even if they are not a particularly good one. The U.S and South Korea should push for a full implementation of Resolution 2270 by all (read: China) parties. The loophole that allows the regime to export goods if the money doesn’t go to weapons programs must be closed and all fuel imports cut off.
Other options are available if the regime persists. Sabotage or cyber warfare should also be considered. Although such attacks are much more provocative and politically dangerous, if executed correctly, they could severely disrupt the North Korean economy without resulting in a kinetic response.
The end goal must be putting enough pressure on the DPRK that they are willing to denuclearize before they build a credible deterrent. Essentially this means creating a crisis within the North Korean state. But the the time to work out the kinks in our strategy is running out. The North Koreans may be only a single step away from a functioning ICBM. A fully developed nuclear deterrent would change the strategic picture greatly, allowing Kim to extract concessions and preserve his regime through nuclear blackmail.
The time for patience is over, if the North cannot be brought to the table by sanctions, than other means will be necessary. If sanctions and cyber war fail a much worse option awaits. We will then have a stark choice: A completely nuclearized DPRK, or a full scale war to prevent one.
*Ballistic missile interceptors are limited in how high they can intercept a given missile. Hwasong-10 launched in this manner would simply fly over the interception envelope.