North Korea has just tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that appears capable of striking cities on the East Coast of the mainland US, which means it’s not just Alaska or Los Angeles that is potentially within of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. Instead, Chicago, New York City, and even Washington, DC, may now need to be added to that grim list.
The missile was fired late Friday night North Korea time, and was in the air for around 45 minutes, according to analysts. Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on North Korea’s missile program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, estimates that the missile is capable of traveling around 10,000 km, or around 6,200 miles.
“The models we’ve created based on the size of the missile and the power of the engine show that it can reach the continental US, probably New York and DC,” he told me in an interview.
That’s as scary as it sounds. On July 4, North Korea successfully tested an ICBM capable of hitting Alaska. Now many of America’s biggest cities are potentially in range as well.
This will only put more pressure on the Trump administration to figure out how to deal with North Korea. Back in January, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said that his country was close to testing an ICBM. President Donald Trump promised that a test wouldn’t happen. But now that there have been two ICBM launches, the administration may feel it must do something beyond tweeting out words of disapproval.
According to a Pentagon release, two US military officials — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Adm. Harry Harris, commander of US troops in Asia — spoke with a South Korean Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Lee Sun Jin about “military response options.”
Regardless of what Trump has said, or the pressure the US, China, and others try to place on North Korea, North Korea continues to produce and test missiles that could harm America and its allies. In fact, the Washington Post reports North Korea can start producing reliable ICBMs next year.
What’s still not clear is if North Korea has the ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon so it could be placed on the tip of the missile, and, even if it can, whether the missile could reach the US and still detonate. However, Lewis believes it’s more clear than officials think. “There is no reason to doubt that they have a reliable nuclear weapon that is small enough to fit on a missile,” he told me.
North Korea has continually made major advancements in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs earlier than outside experts had projected. When Pyongyang handles the final technological hurdles, the US will face the sort of nuclear threat it hasn’t seen since the Cold War.
North Korea is making stunning progress
It’s worth reiterating how quickly North Korea has improved its missiles program this year alone.
“You usually see new missile systems encounter failures early on,” Zachary Keck, a nuclear expert at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said in an interview. “North Korea tested many of its components on earlier missiles and worked out the kinks.”
Even for things as scary as nuclear weapons, practice makes perfect. The Wall Street Journal reports that “in the past three years, North Korea has launched more major missiles than in the three previous decades combined.”
Kim has emphasized the development of the country’s nuclear program since he took power in 2011. He appears to believe that building a highly capable missile and nuclear program in tandem means North Korea will be able to ignore America’s threats and deter Washington from taking any preemptive military moves against it.
That’s why Kim’s program is likely to continue, regardless of what Trump says.
No one has been able to stop North Korea yet
Trump, like past US leaders, has tried to put an end to the North Korean programs. He was hoping China would help him out in this process. After all, China is North Korea’s most important trading partner and has influence over Pyongyang.
The problem is that Beijing has shown no willingness to do so, which is why the Trump administration slapped sanctions on China on June 29, as my Vox colleague Zeeshan Aleem noted at the time. Congress went further this week, overwhelmingly passing legislation slapping even more punitive sanctions on Pyongyang (as well as on Iran and, most notably, Russia); Trump hasn’t definitively said whether he will sign the bill.
“While we will continue to seek international cooperation on North Korea, the United States is sending an emphatic message across the globe that we will not hesitate to take action against persons, companies, and financial institutions who enable this regime,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a June 29 statement on the earlier round of sanctions, clearly alluding to China.
Then again, there was little reason to believe that China was going to step up and put immense pressure on North Korea to stop its program, in part because it fears a collapse of the regime would lead to millions of desperate refugees streaming over its border. “That’s because Beijing has a vested interest in a stable North Korea — and will drag its heels as much as it can on measures that could destabilize the country,” wrote Aleem.
The upshot is that North Korea seems certain to keep working on its nuclear and missile programs — and making each more effective and dangerous -- well into the future. That means a scary situation will get even scarier.