A series of tactical errors mean North Korea is taking American threats increasingly less seriously. The U.S. has military technical and operational options for changing this quickly.
It would be a mistake to assume that we dodged a bullet with the fiery end to North Korea’s Unha-3 missile launch at the Dongchang-ri facility one minute into its fight. In fact, this was a test flight, and while missile engineers always hope for fully successful flights, they also understand that there’s plenty to be learned from failures as well. The reality is that however this launch ended, it portends an exponential advance in North Korea’s military arsenal. While compared to modern solid-fueled rockets the liquid-fueled Unha-3 may be operationally impractical as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, it provides a perfect test of the staging required for a long-range missile designed to carry a nuclear warhead. North Korea’s missile provocation transcends mere reputational costs to the United States and its allies – it poses real military threats that must be addressed through defensive military means.
A brief précis about the North’s existing missile programs helps to understand why a putative satellite launch poses such danger. North Korea’s Taepodong 1 is a two-stage ballistic missile with a maximum range of about 2,000 kilometers for a 1,000 kilogram payload. Its first stage appears similar to the No Dong rocket, and its second stage is probably similar to the Hwasong-6 rocket (both derived from the Soviet “Scud” family of missiles).
With a 1,000 kilogram payload, the Taepodong 1 can notionally reach Japan and Taiwan. The Taepodong 2 is a two-stage ballistic missile with a maximum range of about 3,700 kilometers with a 1,000 kilogram payload. Its first stage is probably based on that of the Chinese Dongfeng 3 (CSS-2) rocket developed in the 1960s. The Taepodong 2 second stage may be identical to the first stage of the Taepodong 1 (i.e., the No Dong rocket). With a 1,000 kilogram payload, the Taepodong 2 can reach Guam and Taiwan.
Although few technical details are known about the Unha-3, recent photographs suggest that its dimensions may be identical to those of the Unha 2, which is a three-stage missile with a maximum range of about 6,000 kilometers for a 1,000 kilogram payload and about 10,000 kilometers for a 500 kilogram payload. Its first stage is similar to that of the Taepodong 2. Its second stage appears to be similar to the Soviet R-26 missile, and its third stage appears to be similar to the second stage of the Iranian Safir-2 rocket.
With a 1,000 kilogram payload, the Unha-2 already can reach Guam and some locations in Alaska. Ominously, with a 500 kilogram payload, the Unha-2 can strike any location in Hawaii or Alaska, as well as the entire West Coast and most of the of the Northwestern United States (as far south and east as Colorado).
Because the trend lines are bad and the situation is getting worse, cutting food aid and pursuing U.N. Security Council resolutions are insufficient, even feeble, responses. They may provide some room for venting and thereby keep a lid on tensions, but they will do absolutely nothing to retard North Korea’s unrelenting ambition of building a long-range nuclear weapons program.
North Korea’s missile exhibitionism has exposed serious tactical mistakes in United States policy, and a sober assessment of North Korea policy assumptions should therefore produce both a new strategic approach and strengthen the U.S. defensive posture in Northeast Asia.
Tactical mistake number one is Washington’s fixation on the quixotic objective of persuading North Korea to negotiate away its limited plutonium stockpile sufficient for 6 to 10 weapons. Coercive diplomacy works best when seeking limited goals, not one that threatens regime survival. However, we have persevered with a maximalist goal despite our lack of leverage or credibility when it comes to meting out punishment for noncompliance.