The North Korean missile that soared high above the Sea of Japan early Monday was hailed by state-run television as a “shining success.” But to U.S. officials, it was a most unwelcome surprise: a weapon with intercontinental range, delivered years before most Western experts believed such a feat possible.
Hours after the apparently successful test, intelligence agencies continued to run calculations to determine precisely how the missile, dubbed the Hwasong-14, performed in its maiden flight. But the consensus among missiles experts was that North Korea had achieved a long-sought milestone, demonstrating a capability of striking targets thousands of miles from its coast.
Initial Pentagon assessments said North Korea had tested a “land-based, intermediate-range” missile that landed in the Sea of Japan just under 600 linear miles from its launch point, Panghyon Airfield, near the Chinese border. But government and independent analyses showed the missile traveling in a steep arc that topped out at more than 1,740 vertical miles above the Earth’s surface.
If flown in a more typical trajectory, the missile would have easily traveled 4,000 miles, potentially putting all of Alaska within its range, according to former government officials and independent analysts. A missile that exceeds a range of 3,400 miles is classified as an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM.
“This is a big deal: It’s an ICBM, not a ‘kind of’ ICBM,’” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “And there’s no reason to think that this is going to be the maximum range.”
David Wright, senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, calculated in a published analysis that the Hwasong-14’s demonstrated capability exceeded 4,100 linear miles, based on preliminary estimates released Monday.
“That range would not be enough to reach the Lower 48 states or the large islands of Hawaii, but would allow it to reach all of Alaska,” Wright said.
North Korea’s apparent accomplishment puts it well ahead of schedule in its years-long quest to develop a true ICBM. The Hwasong-14 tested Monday could not have reached the U.S. mainland, analysts say, and there’s no evidence to date that North Korea is capable of building a miniaturized nuclear warhead to fit on one of its longer-range missiles. But there is now little reason to doubt that both are within North Korea’s grasp, weapons experts say.
“In the past five years, we have seen significant, and much more rapid-than-expected development of their ballistic-missiles capability,” said Victor Cha, a former director of Asian affairs for the George W. Bush administration’s National Security Council. “Their capabilities have exceeded our expectations on a consistent basis.”
While U.S. intelligence officials have sought, with some success, to disrupt North Korea’s progress, Pyongyang has achieved breakthroughs in multiple areas, such as the development of solid-fuel rocket engines and mobile-launch capabilities, including rockets that can be fired from submarines. Early analysis suggests that the Hwasong-14 uses a new kind of indigenously built ballistic-missile engine, one that North Korea unveiled with fanfare March 18. Nearly all the country’s previous ballistic missiles used engines based on modifications of older, Soviet-era technology.
“It’s not a copy of a crappy Soviet engine, and it’s not a pair of Soviet engines kludged together — it’s the real thing,” Lewis said. “When they first unveiled the engine on March 18, they said that the ‘world would soon see what this means.’ I think we’re now seeing them take that basic engine design and execute it for an ICBM.”
In announcing the test in a special TV broadcast Monday, North Korean officials proclaimed that the country had achieved an ICBM capability that would safeguard the communist government from attacks by the United States and other adversaries. According to U.S. analysts, leader Kim Jong Un has long calculated that nuclear-armed ICBMs are the best deterrence against threats to his survival, as any perceived aggression against him could trigger a retaliatory strike targeting U.S. cities.
“As the dignified nuclear power who possesses the strongest intercontinental ballistic rocket which is capable of hitting any part of the world along with the nuclear weapons, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will fundamentally terminate the U.S. nuclear war threats and blackmail and credibly protect the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the region,” a government spokeswoman said in a bulletin read on state-run television.
The spokeswoman added that the missile’s trajectory was deliberately set “at the highest angle” to avoid harming neighboring countries.
That claim rang true to U.S. analysts, who agreed that the high arc was likely intended to avoid possibly hitting Japanese territory. Moreover, the rocket’s flight path also would help North Korea secure another objective: secrecy. By sending the spent engine splashing into the deep waters of the Sea of Japan, Pyongyang ensured that it would be hard, if not impossible, for U.S. and Japanese divers to find and retrieve the parts.