It has been quite a year for those of us who follow the development of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs; 2017 has seen several tests of missiles of increasing range and sophistication, with varying degrees of success. Decades of research into missile technology have culminated in two successful tests of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a long sought after capability for the Kim regime. And with recent reports claiming that North Korea has successfully miniaturized a warhead to be placed in a missile and may have up to 60 nuclear weapons, North Korea doesn’t appear to be the laughing stock many think it is any more.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile program garners little more than the occasional headline here in Canada. But the pace at which North Korea’s weapons programs have matured and expanded demand that Canada seriously consider its role in responding to North Korea’s advances. And the problem will only get worse as North Korea continues to develop the technology needed for thermonuclear weapons and more reliable and accurate missiles. It’s clear that Canada will be dealing with the North Korean problem for years to come, so it’s best to start by figuring out what the latest ICBM test means for Canada.

Modelling conducted by David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists, using data from the most recent ICBM test on July 28, 2017, estimates that the Hwasong-14 has a range of around 10,400km. But the Earth’s rotation needs to be taken into consideration when firing eastwards at a target. Doing so increases the range of North Korea’s ICBM to beyond 11,000km. Figure 1 shows the approximate distance from North Korea to several major US cities, as well as the range of the Hwasong-14 when targeted at specific cities and accounting for the rotation of the Earth, and the Hwasong-14’s ability to hit targeted cities.

Figure 1.




 Distance from North Korea Range of missile when targeted at city   Ability to hit city
Los Angeles 9,500 km 11,700 km Yes
Denver 9,800 km 11,400 km Yes
Chicago 10,400 km 11,100 km Yes
Boston 10,750 km 10,750 km Yes
New York 10,850 km 10,850 km Yes
Washington DC 11,000 km 10,900 km No

Table recreated using data from: David Wright. “North Korean ICBM Appears Able to Reach Major US Cities.” Union of Concerned Scientists: All Things Nuclear. July 28, 2017.

The implications of the estimates in Figure 1 for Canada are grim. The shortest distance from North Korea to the east coast of the US is over the Canadian Arctic. Based on Wright’s data and considering the northerly disposition of Canadian cities relative to their American counterparts, it’s likely that any North Korean ICBM that could hit an American city on the east coast can reach Canadian cities too. In fact, Toronto and Ottawa lay close to potential flight paths of ICBMs launched at Washington DC and New York from North Korea.

Being within range of a nuclear-tipped missile is nothing new for Canada. The Soviet Union aimed ICBMs at Canada for decades, and key Canadian NORAD facilities and radar sites likely still factor into current Russian target sets. But North Korea has a limited number of ICBMs (for now), and targeting American cities (and American bases in Japan and South Korea) does more to deter the US than targeting Canadian ones. An off-target North Korean ICBM striking Canadian territory, or fallout drifting over Canadian population centres in the event of a nuclear exchange present the greatest (albeit unlikely) direct threats to Canada.

This isn’t to say the direct threat to Canada and Canadians should be dismissed, it’s just that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs present more of a threat to Canada’s global interests rather than the territory itself. Canada’s most important ally (the US) and two of its key regional partners (Japan and South Korea) are threatened by North Korea’s nuclear tipped missiles. The US’ perception of its security invariably affects what it requires from its allies, and it’s likely that Canada wouldn’t remain unaffected by shifts in American demands for security cooperation.

Furthermore, the potential for miscalculation by either side is high given the fiery language being used. Any conflict on the Korean Peninsula could quickly turn nuclear if the Kim regime felt its survival was at stake, potentially destabilizing the region. Given Canada’s past involvement in the Korean War, Canada may be asked to send troops or support American and South Korean forces should a conflict break out, which could make Canada a target of an ICBM attack. With the interconnectedness of the world today, Canada has an interest in ensuring that its key Asian trading partners aren’t attacked, that regional trade remains uninterrupted, and that the nuclear taboo remains unbroken.

There’s also the possibility that North Korea could fuel further global nuclear and missile proliferation. Emboldened by North Korea’s success, more leaders around the world may seek nuclear weapons as a means of ensuring their regime’s survival, increasing the risk of nuclear use and/or a nuclear accident. North Korea could also sell destabilizing missile or nuclear technology to either a state or non-state actor that threaten Canada and its allies’ interests. As a party to both the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Missile Technology Control Regime, Canada has an interest in upholding global non-proliferation norms that would be undermined by those actions.

It’s time for Canada to become more active in responding to the danger posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles. While those capabilities may not pose a direct threat to Canada, they can harm many of our key allies and partners and undermine the international stability that underpins Canada’s security. The North Korean nuclear genie cannot be put back in the bottle, but that doesn’t mean we should let it grant Kim Jong-Un three wishes.

Christopher Cowan is a Research Analyst and Editor at the CDA Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user emyeu sss7.

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