The United States, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea all agree that, last week, North Korea successfully flight tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that it calls the Hwasong-14. A U.S. government source with knowledge of the Hwasong-14 launch confirmed to The Diplomat that the United States currently assesses the missile’s range as falling in the 7,500 to 9,500 kilometer range. The upper bound of that range would allow the Hwasong-14 to reach major U.S. cities on the country’s west coast, including Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. By any measure, this new North Korean missile qualifies for the ICBM label.
However, this same missile, which the United States government has designated the KN-20, is not being assessed as an ICBM by Russia, which last week blocked the United Nations Security Council’s condemnation of North Korea on the grounds of its disagreement about the nature of the missile and its range. China, meanwhile, has “noted relevant reports” about the Hwasong-14 launch, but has not yet called it an ICBM publicly; Beijing is “trying to get more information,” according to its Foreign Ministry spokesperson.
Are there grounds for reasonable doubt that North Korea launched an ICBM? Well, not quite.
The relevant data points for extrapolating a missile’s demonstrated minimum range — its apogee, range, and flight time — all came through shortly after North Korea tested the Hwasong-14 courtesy of South Korean, Japanese, and U.S. government sources. Keep in mind that North Korea tests its long-range missiles using a “lofted” trajectory, meaning that it fires them at a sharp angle to avoid overflying its neighbors. In 1998, North Korea launched a Taepodong-1 rocket technology demonstrator, overflying Japan. That test ultimately led to a negotiated moratorium on North Korea’s missile testing that broke down in 2006. But since the Taepodong-1 episode, North Korea works to avoid overflying Japan with its eastward-flying projectiles.
The July 4 missile flew to a range of 935 kilometers, exhibiting an apogee of more than 2,800 kilometers, and a flight time of 37 minutes. That missile, if flown at a minimum energy trajectory, would easily fly past the 5,500 kilometer cut-off that both the United States and Russia use to define an intercontinental-range missile. (These numbers were confirmed by the United States, Japan, South Korea, and even North Korea.) Given this was a liquid-fueled missile, North Korea could have purposefully shut off the motors earlier in flight than necessary to avoid overflying Japan or splashing down farther into its exclusive economic zone, too. This could partly explain why the upper bound of the U.S. government range estimate is greater than those proffered by some experts working with open source data. (Incidentally, the United States observed the missile on the launch pad near Panghyon Airport for about 70 minutes prior to its firing.)
The Russians, however, are maintaining that North Korea did not launch an ICBM at all, but something else entirely, based on data presumably collected by their own early warning radar systems. According to Russian intelligence assessments of the July 4 North Korean launch seen by Russia’s TASS news agency, the missile supposedly flew to a range of 510 kilometers, with an apogee of 535 kilometers over a flight time of 14 minutes.
That performance would suggest something more in the class of North Korea’s Pukkuksong-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) or Pukkuksong-2 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM). Both missiles have demonstrated similar range and apogee numbers in previous successful test flights. We know North Korea didn’t fire those missiles because the North Koreans released video and imagery of the Hwasong-14’s launch and even broadcast footage showing the ICBM’s stage- and shroud-separation in space. If anything, North Korea was transparent about its milestone ICBM achievement with the July 4 launch.
In line with their data on the trajectory, the Russians are calling the missile fired on July 4 an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), likely using the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty definition of a missile ranged between 500 and 5,500 kilometers — not the U.S. government’s definition of an IRBM, which is a missile that is ranged between 3,000 and 5,500 kilometers.
There are a few possibilities to explain this. First, given that the Hwasong-14 was a two-stage missile, it is possible that Russian early warning systems only detected the missile’s first stage. A U.S. government source with knowledge of the Hwasong-14 test confirmed to The Diplomat that the missile’s first stage reached an apogee of 585 kilometers — a number relatively close to what Russian intelligence claims to have detected as the overall apogee for the Hwasong-14, but inexact enough to leave doubt that this was actually the case. However, if this is the case, Russia’s early warning system and radars would have missed the Hwasong-14’s second stage altogether. Given that the Hwasong-14’s second stage is far from an object small or stealthy enough to completely evade early warning radar detection, the good faith technical shortcoming explanation for Russia’s position seems unlikely. (The alternative explanation — that Russia’s early warning system is deeply deficient — is more concerning for other reasons.)
A counterargument here is that Russia does have a fairly odd history with North Korean missile and nuclear tests, often offering statements that contradict the consensus view between the United States, South Korea, and Japan (and sometimes North Korea). In the past, Russian estimates have seen more projectiles than were actually launched out of North Korea; entirely missed launches; overestimated nuclear yields; and overestimated North Korea’s satellite launch vehicles. (The Russian Foreign Ministry said, for example, North Korea’s failed 2009 Unha-2 SLV delivered a payload into orbit when the United States said it simply splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.) It appears that this history of the Russians presenting unique intelligence assessments on North Korean missile and nuclear developments continued last week with a particularly divergent read on the Hwasong-14’s trajectory.
The other possibility, of course, is that none of this has anything to do with deficiencies in Russia’s early warning capabilities or intelligence assessments. Instead, this could be political and diplomatic gamesmanship; Russia may be deliberately stalling action at the UN Security Council over the July 4 launch. This could be so for a variety of reasons, ranging from seeking a quid pro quo from the United States in other areas or out of an interest in seeing North Korea spared another round of condemnation at the Security Council.
Whatever the reasons, the Russians appear to be convincing no one that North Korea didn’t successfully carry out its first-ever ICBM test flight on July 4, 2017.