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What does North Korea’s missile launch mean?

BY MATT STILES AND JONATHAN KAIMAN
LOS ANGELES TIMES / TNS

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – Six months ago, North Korea’s dynastic leader, Kim Jong Un, announced in clear terms his nation’s resolve to develop a ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States.

Such an accomplishment would surely shift the power dynamic in Northeast Asia – and help cement the government’s long-sought status as a nuclear state.

It appears Kim may have gotten his wish.

North Korea displayed a submarine-launched ballistic missile during a military parade in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017.
(ZHU LONGCHUAN/XINHUA/ZUMA PRESS/TNS)

Successful launch
North Korea announced Tuesday that it had, at long last, test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile – a “glistening miracle,” as state news described it.

The news means an already intractable problem posed by Pyongyang’s advancing nuclear and missile programs just got more difficult for the United States and its regional allies.

“It’s really, really significant from a technological and political standpoint,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California who studies North Korea’s missile program.

American and South Korean officials, while confirming the event and expressing concern, said in their initial assessments that the missile appeared to be somewhat less capable than North Korea announced.

‘New escalation’
But late Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned what he acknowledged was an intercontinental ballistic missile test, saying the launch represents “a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region and the world.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and her counterparts from Japan and South Korea requested an emergency Security Council meeting Wednesday in response to the missile launch.

“As we, along with others, have made clear: We will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea,” Tillerson said.

Military response
The U.S. Army and South Korea military conducted a combined missile exercise Tuesday as a show of force in response to North Korea’s test.

Multiple Hyunmoo-2 missiles, capable of striking any target in North Korea, were blasted from launchers along South Korea’s eastern coastline into the South’s territorial waters. The exercise took place within 10 miles of the demilitarized zone separating North and South.

“The deep strike precision capability enables the (South Korean)-U.S. alliance to engage the full array of time critical targets under all weather conditions,” the U.S. Army said in a statement.

The initial questions about North Korea’s claim appeared to be about the performance and range of the missile – not the fact that Pyongyang had significantly improved its capability. By any measure, the missile appeared to be the longest-range military device North Korea has tested.

Line crossed?
The regime has accelerated the pace of its missile testing program in recent years under Kim Jong Un, a grandson of Kim Il Sung, the nation’s communist patriarch.

But the new capability – a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions – seems to have crossed a psychological threshold. It already has led to widespread alarm that other, shorter-range ballistic missile tests this year haven’t provoked.

“Politically, it’s a game changer,” said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Long and high
The device, which North Korea called the Hwasong 14, flew on a lofted trajectory more than 1,700 miles into the atmosphere – farther than the International Space Station – for around 40 minutes.

It landed more than 500 miles east, in the Sea of Japan, which Koreans call the East Sea.

In theory, the missile’s range could have allowed it to reach Alaska on a flatter trajectory, though such a flight path would have introduced other technical complexities and physical hurdles for the regime’s scientists.

Still, it’s a significant accomplishment for the regime. “When I heard it was a 40-minute flight,” Hanham said, “my stomach just dropped.”

Newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who recently discussed North Korea at a summit meeting with President Donald Trump in Washington, convened an emergency security meeting. He also called on the international community to “take action.”

Options – all bad
But for South Korea and the United States, which has 28,000 troops on the Korean peninsula, a list of bad options for slowing or stopping North Korea now appear even more limited.

The regime’s nuclear and missile programs have perplexed the last three American presidents.

They have tried negotiation, economic aid, international sanctions, diplomatic pressure and even covert action.

The strategies have failed. Experts now believe North Korea is an established nuclear state with more than a dozen devices. A key question had been whether the regime could deliver its weapons globally.

Experts believe North Korea needs more time to miniaturize its warheads so they can be launched on missiles. And scientists there still would need to figure out how to get the warheads to safely and accurately re-enter the atmosphere en route to a target.

Still, the aim of long-range delivery now appears within sight, despite Trump’s pre-inauguration tweet, in January, vowing, “It won’t happen!”

Catastrophic possibility
The Trump administration has announced a new policy of imposing “maximum pressure” on North Korea, calling for sanctions but also dialogue if the regime ends its program. The administration has left open the possibility of a military strike, but that could prove catastrophic.

North Korea, for example, could retaliate with its masses of conventional weapons, such as artillery, along the border that is roughly 40 miles from Seoul, a metropolitan area of more than 20 million residents.

Some believe the United States and other countries that have concerns about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs should negotiate a freeze on testing, and perhaps a return of international inspectors to North Korean laboratories.

With all the focus on missiles lately, it’s easy to forget that the North could perform its sixth underground nuclear detonation test any day – another provocation that would further increase the sense of crisis in the region, said John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.

“There are some diplomatic options – they’re not great – but they’re probably what we should do,” he said.

“At this point, it’s no longer about denuclearizing the Korean peninsula,” Hanham said. “Now it’s just about containing North Korea as best we can.”

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