TSG IntelBrief: North Korea Takes a Very Dangerous Step
August 30, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Early on August 29, North Korea launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile that flew over northern Japan.
• North Korea’s actions have mobilized Japanese, South Korean, Chinese, and U.S. diplomatic and military efforts to avoid large-scale conflict.
• While previous North Korean missile tests have always been highly provocative, the country’s August 29 missile launch is significantly more destabilizing than previous tests.
• Pyongyang is now testing a missile every four to six weeks, an accelerated pace that both advances its timeline for obtaining a reliable, nuclear-capable, ballistic missile capacity, and shrinks the window of opportunity for the international community to break the deteriorating status quo.
North Korea has taken a very dangerous step in the building crisis over its dual-tracked nuclear and ballistic missile programs. With every test flight of Pyongyang’s various classes of ballistic missiles, the country builds new data and lessons learned that put the country a step closer to missile systems that can reliably and accurately carry a nuclear payload. While previous North Korean missile tests have always been highly provocative, the country’s August 29 missile launch is significantly more destabilizing than previous tests.
The missile was not launched from the normal testing facilities, but rather from near the Pyongyang airport. This was likely meant to demonstrate the system’s mobility, in an effort to build on a set of factors that would deter a potential U.S. preemptive strike; a system that is capable of movement and cover among population centers presents a much more difficult target for any attack by the U.S. against Pyongyang’s nuclear or missile capabilities. More importantly, the missile flew directly over Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, as opposed to simply passing through Japanese airspace. It is believed to be the first time that a missile of exclusively military purpose was launched over Japanese territory by North Korea; two previous missile launches in 2009 and 1998 that overflew Japan were said to have been capable of carrying satellites, but not a military payload. The missile launched in the August 29 test, believed to be a Hwasong 12 intermediate-range ballistic missile, traveled 1700 miles at an altitude that was much lower than that of previous launches, before splashing into the Pacific Ocean east of Japan.
North Korea’s threat to bomb the U.S. territory of Guam generated understandable alarm, and the threat to South Korea and Japan, both U.S. allies, has serious implications for the region and world. Japan might have tried to shoot down the approaching missile had it not determined that it was a test, presenting a complex, high-stakes, and fast-paced scenario that no country wants to contemplate when facing an adversary as dangerous and unpredictable as North Korea. For any scenario in which Tokyo might attempt to shoot down a ballistic missile that it determined is a threat, Japan would have very little time to act—perhaps five minutes—and the chances of an accurate intercept are low, given how exceedingly difficult it is to hit one supersonic missile with another. Depending on where the intercept occurred, it may also pose a risk to people on the ground, though that risk pales in comparison to the larger danger of allowing an actual ballistic missile strike on Japanese territory.
Pyongyang has warned against military training exercises being held between South Korea and the U.S.; the annual exercises—which are a mix of computer simulations and traditional exercises—are a source of great tension for North Korea, which considers them a pretext for an invasion and regime change. Last week, North Korea tested three short-range missiles capable of hitting U.S. and South Korean military targets. The U.S. and Japan are conducting joint military exercises as well. China had requested the U.S. cancel or delay its exercises with South Korea as a way to lower the tensions, an unrealistic request given the need for joint defense of South Korea, and North Korea’s continued refusal to even temper its rhetoric and actions. Pyongyang is now testing a missile every four to six weeks, an accelerated pace that both advances its timeline for obtaining a reliable, nuclear-capable, ballistic missile capacity, and shrinks the window of opportunity for the international community to break the deteriorating status quo.
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