Pyongyang won’t be able to stop the West from imposing sanctions on its missile tests.
North Korean denuclearization was a top priority during the Trump administration. The North Korean issue has been put on the back burner under Joe Biden. The folly of allowing diplomacy in stalemate is evident by the recent testing of an intercontinental-ballistic missile (ICBM), allegedly capable to striking targets throughout the US.
North Korea’s flight test of an indigenously manufactured ICBM on Thursday serves as a stark reminder that even as the international community wrestles with the consequences of Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine, the world outside Europe remains a very dangerous place, with the potential for becoming even more so.
Launch of Hwasong-17 ICBM represents a significant leap in North Korean military capabilities. It was unveiled publicly at a Pyongyang military parade in 2020 and at a defense fair in 2021.
According to North Korean media reports, the test was carried out using a mobile launcher at a Pyongyang International airport. The missile traveled 1,090km (61 miles) over 67 minutes before reaching an altitude around 6,250km (3.905 miles) and hitting the target in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast Japan.
The flight parameters of the missile test would give the Hwasong-17 a demonstrated range of just under 15,000km (9,320 miles) – more than enough to hit any target in the continental United States.
Reportedly, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, personally oversaw the launch of the Hwasong-17 – a missile he claimed had been developed due to “The inevitable confrontation with US imperialists is a certainty, as well as the risk of nuclear war.” According to his nation’s state-run media, it is capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads, “The design requirements were met exactly” and was assessed as being ready for operations “under wartime environment and conditions.”
Thursday’s test had been preceded by a series of missile launches that appeared to have been related to the testing of individual components in preparation for the full-scale testing of the missile. While these tests, which used the Hwasong-17 as a booster to launch military reconnaissance satellites, did not have the rocket fly to its full potential range, they did serve to validate its propulsion system, as well as its ability to separate a payload with precision in space – both essential tasks for an operational ICBM-capable missile.
North Korea’s diplomatic relations with the Biden government have been ineffective after nearly four years worth of unsuccessful but nevertheless fruitful direct contact with Trump administration officials and Trump himself. In 2018, North Korea imposed a moratorium on long-range missile testing as part of its now-stalled denuclearization negotiations.
The ICBM test is a clear demonstration that Pyongyong believes the diplomatic window that had been opened with the US under Trump is now closed, and, as such, was in keeping with the goal of enhancing North Korea’s self-defense capabilities that Kim had outlined in his end-of-year message to the nation.
The Biden administration has committed toa policy built around a notional “Pacific pivot” that would place the issue of North Korea and, in particular, its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, at the forefront. A disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, coupled with heightened tensions with Russia over Ukraine, have prevented this “pivot” from making the transition from paper to action, however.
The important takeaway from the testing of the Hwasong-17 isn’t that North Korea is preparing for war, but rather that it is seeking to create an environment in which a diplomatic solution to the ongoing standoff with the West can once again take priority. Kim acknowledged for the first times that his country was facing acute food shortages in December’s end-of-year speech. He did so without focusing on military might. Due to devastating floods that have decimated North Korean rice production and are now causing a severe food crisis, the UN says the country faces a deficit of almost 860,000 tonnes (780,179 tonnes) which cannot be met without international help.
This context is important because it shows how Pyongyong intends to use the US’ absence of leadership as a diplomatic tool. As such, it’s in keeping with its usual practice, which is to send diplomatic signals through demonstrations of military strength. They do not highlight the country’s insecurity, as it remains at odds over the diplomatic route to resolving the decades-old conflict.
The US and West may not be able to respond to North Korea’s testing of Hwasong-17 if they continue to impose economic sanctions. If that is the case, the US might have to take further steps to redouble its nuclear weapon testing. The main problem today isn’t North Korean belligerency, but a lack of US vision in exploiting the opportunity created by Pyongyong’s measured provocation.
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