Written by C Uday Bhaskar.
On November 29th North Korea carried out the test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) which crashed not just directly into Japan’s economic exclusion zone also into the membership of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
This club comprising of the United States, Russia, China, France and the U.K., are all nuclear powers with a proven ICBM capability—the ability to launch missiles across ranges greater than 5,500km. North Korea has now succeeded in joining this club. This new capability will alter the strategic profile of North Korea and the geopolitics of East Asia permanently.
With Wednesday’s ICBM test, Pyongyang has now upped the ante regionally for the moment reduced the odds of any impulsive moves towards regime change by the United States—the deep anxiety of Kim Jong-un which likely dominates his thinking.
The North Korean missile, the Hwasong-15, was launched at night from a mobile launcher and traversed a range of 950km after attaining an altitude of 4,500m or 4.5km. When fired at optimum range (and not the current elevation), it is estimated that the missile will have a range of more than 13,000km.
North Korea had carried out a series of missile tests over the course of the year, as well as nuclear test in September to establish its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) profile and resist what it describes as ‘US imperialism.’ The November 29th test points to a high degree of missile technology, in that the missile was fired from a mobile launcher and at night—thereby escaping detection. This feature will enhance the survival index of the Hwasong-15, though it does not yet prove that North Korea is able to actually miniaturize the nuclear warhead and fit it on the same missile.
An ICBM acquires strategic salience only when it is fitted with a nuclear warhead and the weapon in turn is able to exit the earth’s atmosphere, carry out its parabolic path in outer space and then re-enter the earth’s atmosphere with its warhead intact. It then must successfully be guided to the designated target. North Korea is yet to establish this degree of technical competence but the probability that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un will acquire this level of technology remains high. The question is now one of when—not if this occurs.
It is pertinent to note that North Korea has now acquired a nascent missile capability that places it in an exclusive ‘P-5 plus 1’ category and this will have its own impact on both the strategic situation in East Asia, and also on the global nuclear security landscape. South Korea and Japan, which are US military allies, likely now feel even more vulnerable and hence are increasingly dependent upon the nuclear umbrella of U.S. Pacific Command.
Following this test the is now the possibility of a greater investment in ballistic missile defenses by the South Korea and Japan, which in turn will cause great discomfort in Beijing.
In essence, with Wednesday’s ICBM test, Pyongyang has now upped the ante regionally for the moment reduced the odds of any impulsive moves towards regime change by the United States—the deep anxiety of Kim Jong-un which likely dominates his thinking. President Donald Trump has accused North Korea of supporting terrorism and is exhorting Security Council members, particularly China and Russia, to support even more severe sanctions and penalties against the Hermit Kingdom.
Having survived decades of isolation, it is unlikely that Pyongyang will comply with the US-led demands to roll back its now thriving WMD program. Both Japan and South Korea have in the past asserted that a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable to them. How the US and the other major powers proceed in response to the Hwasong-15 will shape the stability of East Asia over the next few months.
India is an interested party in this equation to the extent that the North Korean nuclear program benefited from Pakistan and the A.Q. Khan proliferation network. The Chinese umbrella that sheltered both these nations has been well documented. The fact that both these protégés of Beijing are accused of supporting terror-related activities and ideologies and the inability of the global leadership to deal with them effectively points to the complex turbulence and discord that now lies ahead in the Indo-Pacific region.
A grand bargain with Pyongyang and a formal end to the Korean War may soon have to be called for.
C Uday Bhaskar is a retired Commodore in the Indian Navy and currently serves at the Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He tweets at @theUdayB. This article was first published on the online magazine The Week and has been republished with permission from the author. Image credit: CC by United States Air Force/Flickr.