It was only a matter of time, and now the wait is over. Following a 74-day lull after its September 15 launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile over northern Japan, Pyongyang once again test fired a ballistic missile. Similar to its two Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests in July, Pyongyang’s latest test of the new Hwasong-15 ICBM followed a lofted, vertical course. However, it flew farther (960 km) and reached a higher maximum altitude (4,500 km) than previous tests. If fired on a standard trajectory, it could fly up to 13,000 km (8,077 miles), theoretically placing Washington D.C. and Manhattan within range.
While Pyongyang still may not possess the capability to properly miniaturize and deploy a nuclear warhead on an ICBM capable of withstanding the extreme conditions of re-entry, the latest test shows “the threat from North Korean missiles is no longer hypothetical,” as Van Jackson put it. Moreover, it provides confirmation of what Dr. Andrei Lankov correctly observes is Pyongyang’s central objective. He writes: “The North Koreans have always been determined to reach the Holy Grail of their nuclear and missile program: the ability to deliver atomic annihilation to any American city, at any time.” Pyongyang’s official media organ, KCNA, affirmed as much, noting the Hwasong-15 is capable of carrying a “super-large heavy warhead” and “striking the whole mainland of the U.S.” After the test, Kim Jong-un declared North Korea has now completed the development of “the state nuclear force.”
The unprecedented altitude of the launch, not to mention the fact it was conducted at night from a mobile platform with solid fuel, sends a clear signal to the United States. In short: for policy purposes, Washington, D.C. must assume Pyongyang is technically capable of striking the U.S. mainland and cannot be completely confident in its ability to prevent it from doing so. Kim Jong -un has no intention of giving up this ability and the U.S. negotiating stance demanding complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) is a nonstarter in Pyongyang.
Where does this leave Seoul? The most immediate and relatively underappreciated element of Seoul’s response was its precision strike missile launch, conducted within six minutes of Pyongyang’s launch near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Sea of Japan (or East Sea). Seoul’s rapid response falls under the fifth of President Moon Jae-in’s five principles for a peaceful Korean Peninsula, namely, his call for a “stern response to any North Korean provocation.” The quick reaction also shows just how far Seoul’s defense and war-fighting capabilities have advanced in a relatively short period.
When North Korea shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong-do Island in November 2010, it was reported in Jane’s International Defense Review that Republic of Korea (ROK) marines on the island could not talk to the army command. According to a U.S. official privy to the event, the local marine commander had to literally pick up a telephone and call the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff to inform them what was happening. Just seven years later, Seoul’s precision response to Pyongyang’s test provides notable proof of its ongoing efforts to enhance the intelligence and command-and-control capabilities as well as overall interoperability of the ROK military.
As Chad O’Carroll of NK News notes, Seoul’s rapid precision strike response, executed at 3:23 a.m., is significant in that it shows its military possessed intelligence on Pyongyang’s forthcoming launch. The detection was reported to have come from the ROK Air Force’s Boeing 737 early warning aircraft. Furthermore, the strike itself involved coordinated action between the ROK Army, Navy, and Air Force. The army launched one Hyunmoo-2 type ballistic missile from a land-based platform, the navy one 1,000 km (620 mile) range surface-to-ground Haesung-2 missile from an Aegis destroyer, and the air force one air-to-ground Spice-2000 missile from a KF-16 fighter plane.
Following the strike, the ROK JCS said the “three missiles simultaneously hit the target which simulated the origin of the enemy’s provocation,” as the location in the sea targeted by the ROK military was calibrated to match the distance to the North Korean launch site. The speed and integration of the response shows remarkable improvement in ROK crisis capabilities. It also offers potent operational evidence of parts of its Kill Chain preemptive strike system and Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) plan, two parts of South Korea’s three-pronged defense system.
The Kill Chain (still being developed) includes various surveillance assets, like the aforementioned Boeing 737, and early warning reconnaissance satellites meant to gather information on North Korea’s nuclear and missile-related activities and quickly relay it to waiting South Korean pilots. Currently, Seoul remains dependent on U.S. early warning satellites, but allegedly plans to lease one from Israel or another country until it can place its own surveillance satellites into orbit sometime in the 2020s. The KMPR plan, on the other hand, is designed to annihilate Pyongyang and the source of any provocation with a barrage of missiles following a North Korean attack. While Seoul’s response demonstrates it may be capable of swift retribution, it does not indicate the capacity to preempt a strike.
Beyond Seoul’s immediate response, Pyongyang’s test does not bode well for Moon’s hopes of engagement. Moon himself forcefully remarked that until now his government had offered “a bright future” should North Korea stop its provocations and come to the dialogue table, but despite these “sincere efforts and appeals” Pyongyang has carried on. According to Moon, Pyongyang’s actions have left Seoul little choice but to further build up its defense capabilities in order to overwhelm it with sheer power. In addition, Moon has agreed both with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump to seek even greater United Nations Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang. Recent events have also cast further doubt on already dim hopes for North Korean involvement in the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang or for the games’ potential role in quieting tensions.
Lastly, the ongoing actualization of Pyongyang’s ability to strike the U.S. mainland exacerbates an extant and troubling fissure between Seoul and the United States. Both allies view North Korea’s denuclearization as an ultimate goal. However, for Seoul, peace remains paramount. Yet there exists real concern in the South Korean capital regarding a possible decoupling of the U.S. commitment to South Korea from the more urgent U.S. imperative of defending its homeland. Moon’s chief press secretary, Yoon Young-chan, said the president thought Pyongyang’s actions could lead the United States to believe a preemptive strike is the best option based on just this dynamic.
U.S. officials’ recent commentary leaves Seoul with little comfort. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Pyongyang’s action “brings the world closer to war,” and if it comes “the North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed.” Not to be outdone, Senator Lindsey Graham, speaking about the possibility of Pyongyang’s full development of an ICBM capable of reaching the United States, observed that if “we have to go to war to stop this, we will… we’re headed to a war if things don’t change.”
In his August remarks, made in response to Trump’s own threat to bring “fire and fury” to North Korea, Moon explicitly stated: “No one should be allowed to decide on a military action on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean agreement.” Nevertheless, the more Pyongyang pushes forward and the longer the United States adheres to a policy that, quite literally, finds reality (i.e. Pyongyang’s de facto nuclear capability) unacceptable, there is little hope the fissure will improve.