The recent test by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) of a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) has generated a range of concerned commentary. Pundits worry over the implications now that ‘crazy’ Kim Jong-Un can strike American territory (so far, only Alaska), and reach out to northern Australia. President Trump wonders for how much longer powers like Japan, the Republic of Korea and China will allow the DPRK to continue. And clearly North Korea’s missile program continues to make steady and perhaps even accelerating progress.
But there are other implications of the recent test which garner less attention but are equally relevant. It is true the DPRK has joined an elite club, as fewer countries have ICBMs (ie. missiles with a range of over 5500 km) than nuclear weapons. However, doing so through yet another new missile shows a disorganised development program that will hamstring weapons deployment. Further, even if the DPRK does deploy ICBMs in numbers, the impact on the balance of power in the region and globally will be very close to zero. Control over conflict escalation on the Peninsula (and the outcome of any war) will remain firmly in favour of South Korea and the US, making any unprovoked DPRK strike extraordinarily unlikely.
To review these issues, it is first worth noting that the missile (named Hwasong-14 [HS‑14] by the DPRK) is very different from the previous ICBMs it has displayed (including another named HS-14), a fact that remains under-appreciated in most commentary. The other two mobile ICBMs are the HS-13 and original HS-14, which I will refer to as the Mod 1. The HS-13 (far right, below; referred to as the KN-08) has three distinct stages with a conical nose-cone; the HS-14 Mod 1 (second from right, below) has no clear staging and a blunt nose-cone.
North Korea’s previous missile arsenal. (Source: BBC)
The new missile (HS-14 Mod 2) looks very different, with at least two distinct stages and a brand new ogival nose-cone. Further, while nothing is known of the engines for the HS-13, they are likely to be those used for the HS-14 Mod 1 – a pair of old Soviet R-27 rockets joined together. On the other hand, the HS-14 Mod 2 appears to have the same new engine that first flew successfully earlier this year. This engine has one main nozzle surrounded by four smaller ones (known as verniers).
Why are these details significant? They highlight the disorganised nature of North Korea’s missile work. The HS-13 and -14 Mod 1 might share some components but have substantial structural (stages) and aerodynamic (nose-cone) differences, and they have never flown. Yet rather than test either, North Korea has gone for a completely new missile with a new engine, stages and shapes. Further, the DPRK has also shown two different types of ICBM-class missile canisters most likely to be for solid-propellant missiles, whereas the ICBM classes mentioned thus far are liquid fuelled. So, on the presumption that these missiles and canisters aren’t fakes to confuse intelligence agencies, North Korea has invested in five different and broadly unrelated ICBM types, and done so while introducing several new shorter-range weapons (the HS-12, Pukguksong-1 and Pukguksong-2) as well.
Such a strategy (if it can be called that) is almost unprecedented: it is an incredibly expensive diffusion of effort: each weapon will have different production, testing, training and operational requirements. Even the superpowers barely reach such diversity. For impoverished North Korea it can only spell the squandering of scarce resources, delaying any useable weapon. Focusing on single, effective and deployable ICBM would have been far more dangerous for the world.
On that note, just how dangerous is the recent flight? On the grand scale, little has changed and little will. North Korea seeks nuclear-armed ICBMs not because it pines to strike the US, whose atomic retaliation would turn it to glass, but because it fears destruction should the much-stronger US and South Korean militaries attack. Holding the US homeland at risk is seen as a means to ensure security against aggression. But no sensible analysis expects a US attack even without an ICBM threat, as North Korea already holds Seoul at risk, together with the thousands of US forces in South Korea. So, the US won’t start a war with Pyongyang, and North Korea won’t start a war with the US or Seoul – as it would either lose, or (if it fired ICBMs) lose and suffer nuclear annihilation. Whether the DPRK deploys one ICBM or one hundred won’t change this – it will always be at a massive disadvantage against the thousands of US atomic warheads.
What may, however, occur is that Kim Jong-Un feels emboldened to further test the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Previously, North Korea has sunk South Korean ships and engaged in artillery shelling; and this without pointing a weapon at Seoul’s security guarantor. Might Pyongyang now try to act more aggressively? It's possible, but the control of any escalation will remain firmly with South Korea and the US due to their vast military and economic superiority. Hence the policy challenge will remain unchanged: to answer provocations with nuanced responses that rein in any incipient truculence.
So, in summary, the recent test presents a mixed bag. A new capability exists that, once married to an atomic warhead that can survive re-entry, will provide the DPRK with its first survivable nuclear strike option against the US. This will enhance its deterrence over Washington. However, the US hasn’t the barest interest in marching on the North. More ICBMs will only reinforce this unwavering status quo. The real risk is that Pyongyang may try wider and more aggressive conventional military action, feeling that its bargaining power has increased. This will require vigilance and skill to manage, but it is a task that Washington and its allies have much practice in, and the resources to prevent a DPRK triumph.