North Korea Just Successfully Tested a Missile That Sure Seems Like an ICBM. What’s Next?

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North Korea Just Successfully Tested a Missile That Sure Seems Like an ICBM. What’s Next?

What did North Korea just test and was it an ICBM?

North Korea Just Successfully Tested a Missile That Sure Seems Like an ICBM. What’s Next?
Credit: Rodong Sinmun screen grab

On Tuesday, July 4, North Korea launched a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. The launch took place at Panghyon Airport in North Pyongan Province at 9:40 am South Korean time, according to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The missile flew to a range of more than 930 kilometers, according to South Korean military sources. According to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, the observed apogee of the missile “greatly exceeded” 2,500 kilometers.

U.S. Pacific Command rated the missile as a “land-based, intermediate range ballistic missile.” The United States defines “intermediate range” missiles as any missiles with a range of between 3,000 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers. Any missile with a range in excess of 5,500 kilometers is considered an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by the United States.

Given the observed range and apogee, this missile almost certainly is capable of flight past 5,500 kilometers and can hit most of Alaska. “The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) assessed that the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America,” Pacific Command noted in its statement on the launch.

North Korea has two known missiles that fit the description of a “land-based, intermediate range ballistic missile”: the Musudan, which hasn’t been observed in a successful flight test since June 2016, and the Hwasong-12 (KN-17).

North Korea’s progress toward an intercontinental ballistic missile has gained speed this year as it has shown off indigenous liquid-fuel engines and progress in reentry vehicle technology, all while loudly signaling its intent to strike the continental United States with a nuclear-capable ICBM. Tuesday’s test was North Korea’s first test of a strategic missile since its flight test of the KN-18 in late May.

The IRBM in question was likely flown at a lofted trajectory, judging by Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga’s reveal of a flight time of 40 minutes. (U.S. Pacific Command said the flight time was 37 minutes.) North Korea commonly “lofts” its missiles, meaning it fires them at a steep trajectory to avoid overflying Japan and other countries by drastically reducing the range.

Tuesday’s missile additionally became the sixth North Korean ballistic missile to splash down in Japan’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ) since a Nodong medium-range ballistic missile did so last August. Earlier this year, three extended-range Scud missiles (ER-Scuds) and one new Scud-C with maneuverable reentry (the KN-18) landed in Japan’s EEZ.

True to form, U.S. President Donald J. Trump took to Twitter to condemn the test: “North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”

The U.S. president did not clarify what precisely he meant by his suggestion that China carry out a “heavy move on North Korea.”

Trump had spoken with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about North Korea on Sunday evening and his administration has been undertaking a policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who convened an emergency National Security Council meeting following the test, was in the United States last week for a summit with Trump as well. The two leaders also discussed the North Korean threat.

What Did North Korea Test?

One independent technical analysis by David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists, using the available range and flight time data, found that the missile in question would likely have a flight range of 6,700 kilometers, putting it in the range of what the United States would consider an ICBM.

“So if the reports are correct, that same missile could reach a maximum range of roughly 6,700 km (4,160 miles) on a standard trajectory,” writes Wright. Apogee data would allow for a more precise estimate, but Wright’s analysis puts the range well outside the 5,500 km threshold the U.S. government considers the minimum range for an ICBM.

Given the presumed success of this test, North Korea will likely release images of the test on Wednesday morning through its state-run television and Rodong Sinmun newspaper.

One of the primary questions concerning this launch is the type of missile that Pyongyang tested. North Korea introduced its Hwasong-12 (KN-17) IRBM on May 14, which experienced its first successful flight test after three failures in April. The May test of the Hwasong-12 exhibited an apogee of 2,111.5 kilometers and a range of around 700 kilometers. The Hwasong-12 also showed a flight time of 30 minutes during that test.

Given the longer flight time observed at Tuesday’s test, it is possible that North Korea is testing a modified payload configuration of the Hwasong-12 to stress the reentry vehicle — one of the final components of developing a reliable ICBM that it’s been working hard at for the past year.

One of the challenges of building an ICBM that can survive the high temperatures generated by atmospheric reentry at speeds several times the speed of sound is ensuring that the reentry vehicle (RV) can survive and maintain its precision. Testing a Hwasong-12 with a lighter payload configuration would allow for a longer reentry time, permitting for North Korea’s engineers to collect data on reentry under conditions more similar to what an ICBM RV would experience.

An alternative possibility is that North Korea is testing new engine configuration for either the Hwasong-12 or a brand new IRBM altogether. On June 22, North Korea tested a new liquid-fuel engine that one source told me was likely intended for the upper stage of an ICBM. Pyongyang released no images from that engine test. Perhaps Tuesday’s test was the intended reveal of that engine.

The good news is that we’ll have a much better idea in less than a day when North Korea will likely tell the world what it tested.

Update: This post has been updated to reflect apogee data.

Update 2: North Korea made a special announcement through its state-run television broadcaster shortly after the launch that it had tested the Hwasong-14 ICBM to a range of 934 km.