We Need to Talk About North Korea’s Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles

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We Need to Talk About North Korea’s Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles

Zeroing in on North Korea’s intercontinental-range ballistic missiles is a counterproductive approach for the Trump administration.

We Need to Talk About North Korea’s Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles
Credit: Rodong Sinmun

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, fresh out of a trip from Pyongyang that was equal parts uncomfortably unplanned and yet triumphant, has been discussing the contours of what an eventual U.S.-North Korea agreement on denuclearization might look like. U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are officially slated to meet in Singapore on June 12, which has started the clock ticking on setting a precise agenda for what the two leaders might discuss during their historic summit, which will mark the first time a sitting U.S. president has met a North Korean leader.

Appearing on CBS News‘ Face the Nation and on Fox News on Sunday, Pompeo offered several remarks on what the United States would look for in a deal with North Korea. Leaving aside the various contradictions between what Pompeo had to say on Sunday and what U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton has been saying, the secretary of state’s comments were confused and suggested that Washington continues to lack a clear sense of the benchmark that it’ll ask North Korea to meet on denuclearization at the upcoming summit meeting. (Pompeo’s statements are helpfully collected here by the Arms Control Association’s Kingston Reif.)

There’s a lot to break down in what Pompeo and Bolton have had to say recently about the ongoing diplomatic engagement between Washington and Pyongyang. One bit, however, stands out. Pompeo, speaking to Fox, described the United States’ core interest in diplomacy with North Korea. According to the secretary of state, the U.S. interest is to prevent “the risk that North Korea will launch a nuclear weapon into L.A. or Denver.”

This is not a new formulation. It’s been a common refrain for administration officials dating back to April 2017, before North Korea had started flight-testing either its Hwasong-14 or Hwasong-15 intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. Last April, former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster noted that the “first and foremost” objective for the administration was to “protect the American people” by making sure that North Korea wouldn’t have “nuclear weapons that can target, that can reach the United States.” Pompeo, as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, picked up along similar lines in August 2017: “We cannot have Kim Jong-un in possession of the capacity to hold America at risk from an ICBM that is nuclear armed,” he told CBS News then.

Exactly one year ago, North Korea tested its Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) successfully for the first time after three failed tests in April 2017. The test came as Chinese President Xi Jinping opened the inaugural Belt and Road Forum and just days after South Korean President Moon Jae-in had been sworn into office on a platform that prioritized engagement with the North.

The Hwasong-12 was tested two more times in 2017, in late-August and mid-September, overflying Japanese territory both times. The August and September tests were successively the longest-range North Korean range demonstrations to date. The 3,700 kilometer range demonstrated by the final Hwasong-12 test in September demonstrated that North Korea could range the U.S. territory of Guam—an important target for the regime—even if the performance of the missile’s reentry vehicle wasn’t up to spec.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s late-April pledges to stop ICBM testing and to dismantle the nuclear test site at Punggye have received much attention lately. Kim made those announcements in a report to the 3rd plenary meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party on April 20. In that same report, Kim made the following observation, paraphrased by the Korean Central News Agency below:

He said that no nuclear test and intermediate-range and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for the DPRK now, given that the work for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets was verified as the whole processes of developing nuclear weapons were carried out in a scientific way and in regular sequence, and the development of delivery and strike means was also made scientifically. (emphasis added)

However, Kim offered the following resolution on the ICBM and nuclear testing ban:

…we will discontinue nuclear test and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire from April 21, Juche 107 (2018)

On one hand, Kim acknowledged that North Korea’s IRBMs require no further testing, but he did not include these missiles in his self-imposed testing moratorium just yet. The Hwasong-12 is the only IRBM in North Korea’s inventory today; the Musudan, declared operational years ago and a failure in extensive testing in 2016, appears to no longer be a focus of North Korea’s nuclear force development.

Kim may be seeking to carve out an exception to continue testing the Hwasong-12, or he may have calculated that these missiles are best left as concessions to be given up for a test moratorium at or after the summit with Trump. Assuming the worst case, however, Kim could continue to test these IRBMs to finesse North Korea’s reentry vehicles, which continue to fall short of what would be acceptable performance. IRBM trajectories wouldn’t replicate the kinds of stresses and total heat absorption a reentry vehicle might experience on a full-range ICBM flight, but North Korea could still gain quite a bit of useful information from continued IRBM testing.

It’s far from apparent that the Trump administration sees any value in focusing on North Korea’s IRBMs, despite interest in these missiles in Japan, a U.S. ally, and their ability to range sovereign U.S. territory in Guam. These so-called ‘Guam-killer’ missiles fill out an important target set for North Korea. Last year, in August, Kim authorized a targeting plan to conduct an “enveloping fire at Guam” with four of these missiles. Even if the administration succeeds in getting Kim to agree to dismantle his Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 ICBMs, Guam will remain under threat from the Hwasong-12 IRBM.

The Hwasong-12 overflights of Japan last year have caused considerable anxiety in Tokyo. Those two tests were the first time that North Korea had overflown Japan—albeit at exoatmospheric altitudes—with a system designed explicitly to carry nuclear payloads. (All previous launches over Japan had involved systems that North Korea had identified as satellite launch vehicles.) Japan is investing in Aegis Ashore, which will grant it some capability to intercept IRBMs overflying its territory, and the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA, co-developed by Tokyo and Washington, is slated for deployment this fiscal year too. All this said, the Abe government has made it clear that IRBMs—and SRBMs and MRBMs—must be on the table at the Trump-Kim summit.

The U.S. administration’s focus on ICBMs is understandable. Last year, North Korea became the first state hostile to the United States to flight-test an ICBM for the first time since China’s test of the DF-5 ICBM 46 years earlier. But ICBMs aren’t the only threat to U.S. territory. Moreover, if the United States is intent on maintaining its Northeast Asian alliances in good health, it simply can’t let North Korea’s ICBMs become the focus of a bargain with Kim.

It remains to be seen if the Trump-Kim summit will fail over a maximalist U.S. demand that Kim Jong-un submit to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.” But even a more realistic standard—one that looks to impose a hard cap on the quality and quantity of North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons—will need to cover IRBMs and, yes, even North Korea’s SRBMs and MRBMs.

As I wrote just days after Trump accepted a summit meeting with Kim, it’s crucial that the administration leverage expertise and sweat the details on what it can and can’t accept from North Korea. In the two months since Trump’s acceptance of the meeting, there’s little sign that Washington has successfully narrowed the agenda of what will be on the table when Trump meets Kim in Singapore. To the contrary, the set of possible outcomes from this meeting has been blown wide open, with talk of everything from good old-fashioned ‘Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Denuclearization’ as the final objective to a far more modest ban on ICBMs and little else. With a month to go, it’s long past time for the Trump administration to take the upcoming meeting with Kim seriously.