On Thursday morning, hardly 48 hours after U.S. President Donald J. Trump first threatened “fire and fury” for continued threats, North Korea released an unusual statement through its state-run Korean Central News Agency.
The statement built on another first released on Tuesday evening, which hinted at a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile test near Guam.
Thursday’s statement dug in further, noting that the “Strategic Force of the [Korean People’s Army] is seriously examining the plan for an enveloping strike at Guam through simultaneous fire of four Hwasong-12 [IRBMs].”
The statement grew stranger toward its conclusion.
North Korea included comments about the prospective trajectory for its launch in detail that I cannot recall seeing in a KCNA statement on a prospective ballistic missile launch to date.
The statement noted that the four Hwasong-12s will “cross the sky above Shimane, Hiroshima, and Koichi Prefectures of Japan.”
It continued, noting that the missiles would fly for 3,356.7 kilometers over 1,065 seconds. The missiles would “hit the waters 30 to 40 kilometers away from Guam.”
The specificity of those numbers suggests that North Korea has already calibrated a trajectory and is waiting to carry out a test.
So, what exactly is going on here?
First, it’s worth emphasizing that this statement is not stating intent to strike Guam itself. North Korea famously despises the U.S. territory, which hosts U.S. Pacific Command’s bomber fleet at Andersen Air Force Base.
In its statement on Monday, North Korea called the Guam-based B1-B Lancers the “air pirates of Guam,” underlining its distaste for the regular Korean peninsula overflights. Even though the U.S. Air Force’s B1-Bs are physically incapable of delivering nuclear payloads today, North Korea continues to see the system as a nuclear delivery platform.
North Korea’s nuclear strategy, which I have discussed at length in a recent article with Vipin Narang, sees Guam as a major first strike target within the Pacific theater. North Korea would endeavor to use its Hwasong-12 IRBM for such an attack, seeking to disarm the United States of its forward-based bombers at Guam early in any crisis. (It’s older IRBM, the Musudan, appears to have been temporarily retired after a troublesome test record in 2016.)
Thursday’s statement, while not suggesting an imminent strike plan, is nonetheless highly disconcerting for other reasons. In 1998, North Korea tested its Taepodong-1 satellite launch vehicle, overflying Japan to much criticism. That test generated immense controversy and precipitated its self-imposed testing moratorium. While the moratorium spectacularly collapsed in 2006, North Korea has never since overflown Japan with any missiles with the exception of its failed 2009 launch of the Taepodong-2 SLV, which landed in the Pacific.
Last year, in August, North Korea tested a Nodong medium-range ballistic missile (MRBMs), which landed in Japan’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. The splashdown of that Nodong was the first such splashdown also since the late-1990s.
Following that Nodong test, multiple North Korean missile tests in the Sea of Japan have splashed down in Japan’s EEZ, including the two most recent Hwasong-14 intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) tests.
I suspect that the August 2016 Nodong test was intended as a litmus test by North Korea to gauge Japan’s reaction to an EEZ splashdown. While Tokyo reacted with elevated rhetoric and temporarily mulled an open-ended intercept order for its PAC-3 missile defense batteries, it did not take any steps to deter future testing.
As a result, North Korea continued testing its missiles further into Japan’s EEZ. The July 28, 2017, Hwasong-14 ICBM even resulted in video footage of the suspected reentry vehicle being captured from Hokkaido.
The EEZ splashdowns, with the exception of a March salvo test of Scud 2 MRBMs, have an important developmental use for North Korea. Given its constraint of generally avoiding overflights of Japan (certainly with ballistic missiles, if not SLVs) and intent to test out longer-range, higher-performance missiles like the Hwasong-12 IRBM and Hwasong-14 ICBM, North Korea has continued to test its missiles at lofted trajectories.
While lofted trajectories can be useful for testing engine performance, airframe robustness, and certain aspects of the reentry vehicle’s structural integrity in descent, there is important developmental value in testing longer-range missiles to full range.
One benefit for North Korea of a full range flight test would be a more realistic terminal stage experience for the reentry vehicle. Lofted trajectories can produce structural stresses in excess of what the reentry vehicle might experience in descent during a minimum energy trajectory flight; similarly, lofted trajectories can also reduce the duration and intensity of temperature-based stresses for a reentry vehicle.
North Korea’s July 28 test, where the reentry vehicle descended from an incredibly high apogee of 3,700 kilometers into the Sea of Japan, likely was primarily intended to demonstrate full-range performance of the engines and operational launch procedures. North Korea notably did not make any claim that the reentry vehicle survived that test as it had done after the July 4 test.
This is where Thursday’s statement comes in. North Korea is likely setting itself up to carry out full-range flight tests of its new IRBM and ICBMs. It will seek to test them at operational useful trajectories for long-range strikes and, in the process, likely seek to prove its reentry vehicles and gather data on the long-range accuracy of these systems.
Strangely enough then, the Thursday KCNA statement, with its granular breakdown of a potential trajectory, serves almost as a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM; credit to Dave Schmerler for that observation). North Korea normally has filed formal NOTAMs before its satellite launches, but never for ballistic missile tests.
While Thursday’s statement was certainly unusual, it isn’t entirely out of the blue for North Korea. Analysts had suspected that Pyongyang might seek to conduct a full-range flight test, but it was always unclear if they would one day overfly Japan out of the blue. Now, it seems that Kim Jong-un has chosen to give the Japanese — and the Americans — sufficient notice of its intent.
Importantly, Thursday’s statement hinted at a launch date later this month, should Kim Jong-un give the order. Incidentally, the United States and South Korea will convene their annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian military exercise soon, giving North Korea what it sees as sufficient cause to stage a developmental missile test that will also serve as a show of force.
Unsaid so far in this analysis is the matter of strategic escalation. Make no mistake: a salvo launch of four Hwasong-12 IRBMs within tens of kilometers of Guam would be the single most threatening direct action that North Korea would have ever taken against U.S. territory. That has serious implications for U.S. strategic decision-making, allied reassurance toward Tokyo, and even escalation.
First, Washington and Tokyo would have to decide whether or not to attempt an intercept of the IRBMs in flight using their SM-3 interceptors. Normally, the United States and Japan do not intercept missile tests because they are able to collect useful data on the performance of North Korea’s missiles and avoid unnecessary escalation with Pyongyang.
A launch that would overfly Japan and land tens of kilometers off Guam is another matter altogether. The United States’ defense commitments to Japan would make rationalizing an interception a simple matter; indeed, for Washington to maintain credibility in the eyes of its allies, it would be compelled to attempt interception over the Sea of Japan using SM-3s.
IRBM interception, however, is no simple matter and the SM-3 Block IA and Block IB interceptors would not be up to the task. Interception over the Sea of Japan would likely require the more impressive Block IIA, which has seen recent testing failures (albeit, allegedly due to human error).
Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries in Guam may be able to take a shot at the incoming IRBMs in their terminal stage depending on a range of factors. THAAD, however, has just entered testing against IRBM-class targets. Finally, even if THAAD succeeds, the missiles would have already overflown Japan by the time they enter engagement range for the Guam-based batteries.
In the end, the prospect of successful interception of one IRBM would come down to a great number of variables going in the favor of the United States and Japan. Even if one missile is successfully intercepted, the odds of going four-for-four with North Korea’s Hwasong-12 salvo over the Sea of Japan using SM-3s are likely to be vanishingly low.
If a single North Korean reentry vehicle successfully splashes down near Guam, the credibility of U.S. missile defense assurances would take a tremendous hit, shaking the faith that Japan and other allies have in Washington’s assurances. Moreover, for the United States, the pressure to respond militarily would be considerably amplified, presenting the risk of an escalation spiral.
Either way, Kim Jong-un has signaled a course of action and, whether or not he chooses to act, the outcomes appear to be in his favor.
If he orders a salvo test and no interception attempts occur, he acquires valuable data, potentially proves North Korea’s reentry vehicles, and then proceeds to declare the Hwasong-12 operational.
If he orders a salvo test and the U.S. and Japan attempt interception but fail to make contact with all four missiles, U.S. defense assurances and credibility take a hit. In any scenario where a ballistic missile is allowed to overfly Japan into the Pacific, this remains true.
Finally, even if Kim Jong-un is to take no action after this KCNA release, the prospect of overflying Japan is now on the table. It is possible too that the statement is an attempt at bargaining, but this appears unlikely given the tone and explicit statement that “sound dialogue is not possible with [Trump].”
2017 began with assurances out of North Korea that it would test an ICBM when ready. Kim Jong-un has already done so twice and tensions between Washington and Pyongyang remain exceptionally high.
Actions like those outlined in Thursday’s KCNA statement would seriously increase the possibility of armed conflict between North Korea and the United States, which would draw in South Korea and Japan. Moreover, any such conflict is unlikely to remain below the nuclear threshold given what we know about North Korea’s self-professed nuclear strategy and nuclear use pressures.
It may not be up to the Trump administration at this point whether or not North Korea chooses to carry out what would be an immensely provocative salvo test. What will be up to the Trump administration will be the response thereafter and continued coordination with allies in the meantime.
Those decisions will determine whether escalation with North Korea will be inevitable or whether the existing uneasy peace can persist beyond 2017.