Unless you spend a lot of time hanging out on nuke Twitter, the fact that the missile North Korea tested Tuesday was a new Hwasong-15 instead of the previously seen Hwasong-14 is probably not that interesting to you.
The key takeaway, according to David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, is that it reached an altitude of 4,500 kilometers. This means that if it were flown on a standard trajectory, it would have a range of more than 13,000 kilometers (8,000 miles), putting Washington, D.C.; New York City; and all of the continental United States within North Korea’s reach. The missile probably couldn’t travel that far while carrying a real nuclear warhead—Tuesday’s missile most likely carried a lighter mock warhead. But given the pace of the program’s development, it seems like only a matter of time before North Korean engineers work that out. And while it’s not clear quite how accurate North Korea’s missiles are, when you’re dealing with nuclear blasts, there’s some margin for error.
All this is pretty alarming, but it’s not actually that new. Most of the U.S. was already in range of the Hwasong-14 that North Korea tested in July, including some fairly large population centers of the West Coast that you might be familiar with. Still, North Korea is treating the Hwasong-15 test as a milestone. According to the Korean Central News Agency, Kim Jong-un “declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power.”
He’s not wrong. North Korea, one of the world’s poorest and most isolated countries, is now one of the world’s nine nuclear powers. You can blame who you want for the fact that we got to this point, whether it’s the Chinese for their lack of pressure, or the Obama administration taking its eye off the ball, or the Bush administration’s belligerence, but it’s the reality that we now face.
President Trump promised to “handle” the situation Tuesday, but it’s not quite clear what he plans to handle. As always, military options are “on the table,” but the likely consequences of any of these options are so grim that even Steve Bannon finds them unpalatable. (Sen. Lindsey Graham feels otherwise.) The U.S. and its allies continue to deploy more advanced missile defense systems, but as Fred Kaplan recently explained, that shouldn’t bring anyone comfort. Trump and his officials have occasionally suggested that they’re open to finding a diplomatic solution, but North Korean officials have made it clear that they have no interest in talking until they’ve sufficiently demonstrated their ability to strike the East Coast. As analyst Andrei Lankov writes, “We can be pretty sure that in the months to come we will see more ICBMs flying high into space, and that sooner or later, the North Koreans will test an ICBM on a regular trajectory (admittedly, a highly risky move).”
So, the likely response, as Trump suggested Wednesday morning, is likely to be more and tougher sanctions. The Chinese government does appear now to be taking the problem more seriously, so these measures could have some extra bite, but previous sanctions have done little to deter the nuclear program, and North Korea, which has one of the world’s most repressive political systems and sees its diplomatic isolation as a badge of honor, is a textbook case of a sanctions-resistant country. As Lankov writes, even if the sanctions do “work,” hurting the country’s economy to the point that it destabilizes the government, it will take “a year or so before the results are felt in North Korea.”
The only good news (and it’s not that good) is that the world has some experience at this point in avoiding nuclear war. The U.S. and Soviet Union faced off without firing their nuclear weapons for more than 40 years. Pakistan and India have done so for nearly 20. As Jeffrey Lewis recently wrote, at the time China tested its first nuclear weapon in 1964, it was viewed in the U.S. as “the most impoverished, backward communist regime in Asia, run by a madman and recovering from a crippling famine.” In other words, we’ve been here before, which is not to say it will definitely happen the same way this time. The risks of catastrophe become greater, of course, if the situation is not handled with sensitivity and caution, which makes the current occupant of the White House particularly worrisome.
The political and media discourse around this problem often still frames the problem in terms of a future threat, curiously resistant to acknowledging North Korea’s existing capabilities. It’s time to start accepting our current predicament and figuring out what to do about it.