Diplomatic options to deal with the North Korean nuclear and long-range ballistic missile threat appear to be narrowing after the test-firing of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on November 28th.  North Korea test-fired a Hwasong-15 ICBM at approximately 3am local time from a launch site just north of the capital Pyongyang.  It flew 53 minutes on a lofted trajectory to 4,500 kilometers above the earth and landed 960 kilometers away in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This is significantly higher in altitude than the successful Hwasong-14 ICBM test in July at 2,802 kilometers and the third successful test of a North Korean ICBM since July of this year. Estimates on range vary, but one credible source puts the range of the Hwasong-15 at over 13,000 kilometers on a normal trajectory, placing the entire continental United States, Europe and Australia within striking range. The missile appears to have been tested under operational conditions as a warning to the United States, and comes on the heels of a South Korean assessment that North Korea will likely field an operational and effective nuclear capability within the next year. The South Koreans also assessed that the North may have perfected its thermonuclear device in its last test and may not need to conduct further nuclear tests. It is unclear what the weight of the payload was, or if it survived re-entry.

North Korea typically test-fires two ballistic missiles in the final quarter of the year and could conduct another launch before the New Year as a further warning to the world. Next steps for the North Korea regime could take several forms including:

  • Test-firing four nuclear-capable Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missiles over Guam as it threatened on several occasions earlier this year;
  • Launch a Pukkŭksŏng-1 submarine launched ballistic missile over Japan out into the Pacific to demonstrate that Pyongyang is on the verge of possessing a credible second-strike capability;
  • Test-fire a nuclear-capable Hwasong-15 ICBM over Japan and out into the Pacific;
  • Carry out a threatened nuclear test over the Pacific or at their test facility at Punggye-ri and;
  • Test a much-threatened electromagnetic pulse weapon.

Now, the United States must live with a nuclear-armed North Korea that can strike the American homeland, and its major cities, including the population-rich eastern seaboard, any time it wants to initiate an attack. Come what may in the next month, and New Year, but strategic options to neutralize the North Korean threat through containment measures such as muscular diplomacy, isolation, and sanctions have failed to produce results.

The Hwasong-15 ICBM test drew condemnation from the United States and its allies, and the United Nations Secretary General, while Russia and China urged calm. Canada announced that it would host a summit to try and find a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis after suggesting Cuba as an intermediary just days earlier. Sadly, the fact remains that the North Korean regime sees nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles as the ultimate guarantor of its sovereignty and the Kim Jong-un regime’s survival. Having witnessed what happens to dictators who give up their weapons of mass destruction, Kim Jong-un and his regime have every reason to move forward with further tests if they are going to field an effective nuclear deterrent in the next year.

It is also increasingly clear that China does not have the pull within the North Korean regime that it once had after Pyongyang sent Beijing’s ‘high-level’ envoy packing and closed its bridge-link to North Korea for repairs. Given the North Korean dictator’s ruthless annihilation of any potential competitor within the regime, his close consolidation of power and putting forth his younger sister as his successor, regime change at this stage looks like a ‘pipe dream.’

This leaves the United States and its allies with deterrence, defence and the use of force, no matter how unthinkable, as their only remaining strategic options. Given the circumstances, the time and ability to use force to neutralize the North Korean nuclear threat has likely passed. Options such as sabotage, shooting down a North Korean missile, or limited punitive strikes are all fraught with risk and could trigger a major war. Thus, only deterrence and defence are credible strategic options for the US and its allies.

In terms of deterrence, the United States has made several crystal-clear statements about its national security interests and the American response should they be threatened or harmed. The United States has carried out tests of its missile defence system and its strategic deterrent, and has increased spending on missile defences to protect its allies and the homeland. To further strengthen deterrence, the United States may have to reverse policy and forward deploy theatre nuclear missiles such as nuclear-tipped Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missiles on warships and nuclear-powered attack submarines, and increase the readiness of its strategic bomber fleet. The best approach to neutralize the North Korean nuclear threat rests with a powerful American nuclear deterrent and strong, robust missile defences that can counter a North Korean ‘city busting’ strike on the America.

Lastly, it is important to note, that these emerging changes in the geo-strategic landscape have immediate national security implications for the United States’ closest allies including Canada.


Joseph Varner is a CDA Institute Research Fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user BipHoo Company.

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