The Yomiuri ShimbunNorth Korea announced via its state-run media that its second attempt at launching an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, was successful. The Defense Ministry calls this “record-breaking in terms of both flight time and altitude,” and North Korea is emphasizing that “the entire mainland United States is within missile range.” How far has North Korean missile technology come? What measures should the international community take? We asked experts in Japan and South Korea, and the following are excerpts from the interviews.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 30, 2017)
Pyongyang showing it has warfare capability
Yang Uk / Korea Defense and Security Forum Chief Researcher
Compared to the Hwasong-14 launched on July 4, the missile this time achieved an altitude that was about 900 kilometers greater. This was seemingly due to the light warhead used. Mathematically, the higher the height, the longer the range. They may have wanted to show off how they had the ability to exceed the 10,000 kilometers needed to attack the U.S. mainland.
By using a light warhead, I believe North Korea was also trying to achieve reentry into the atmosphere, which the United States believes they do not have the technology to do. I think it unlikely they launched an improved version of the Hwasong-14 with a strengthened engine compared with the previous launch of the missile.
There is no guarantee, but there is a possibility that North Korea succeeded in achieving reentry into the atmosphere this time. Experts from the United States, South Korea and others have a mentality of not wanting to believe in North Korea’s technological advances, and have a propensity to evaluate them as lower than they actually are. If you consider the speed at which North Korea has been making advances in missile technology, it is possible that they have secured a missile range with the capability to strike the U.S. mainland, and have succeeded in reentry into the atmosphere.
There is a lot of meaning attached to the fact the missile was launched from Chagang Province in the northern part of the country. North Korea fires missiles from either the proximity of the Demilitarized Zone, central parts of the country, or the Chagang Province.
The Demilitarized Zone is used for short-range missiles; the central parts of the country for mid-range ballistic missiles, such as Nodong; and Chagang Province is used as a base for ICBMs.
Considering the shortest distance to the United States, it is logical North Korea would set up ICBMs in its northern areas. By launching the missile from the area seen to be used for ICBM launches even in the middle of the night, North Korea is trying to show it could use ICBMs in actual warfare. It also means they can launch a missile whenever they want, wherever they want. As it has been said the North would have difficulties launching a missile at night using a simplified mobile launch pad, the nation likely wanted to show they do, in fact, have the ability to carry out such a launch.
It is likely they will now try to launch a “next-generation” ICBM to show they have further advanced their capabilities. In a military parade in April, North Korea unveiled a missile equipped with a large launching tube. This probably uses cold launch (see below) technology, whereby the missile uses solid fuel that is ignited in the air after launch. This makes successive launches possible, increasing the ability to carry out surprise attacks.
North Korea may be trying to shock the United States with a sixth nuclear test that could be bigger in scale than previous tests. If North Korea comes to the negotiating table, it will be after it has finished all of its nuclear tests and has achieved both internal and external recognition that it has the capacity to launch a strike on the U.S. mainland.
The administration of South Korean President Moon Jae In will not simply throw away its dialogue policy with North Korea, given the position up until now. However, as long as North Korea keeps continuing its provocations, South Korea will have no choice but to strengthen its ties with Japan and the United States.
■ Graduated from Seoul National University, Korea National Defense University Graduate School of Defense Management. He has published books on security and weapons, and currently holds positions such as policy advisory committee member for the National Defense Ministry. He is 42.
A cold launch is a method whereby the missile is launched mainly through the use of high-pressure gas generated inside the launch tube, and the fuel is ignited in the air. Compared to a hot launch, which emits fuel on the ground, there is little damage to the mobile launching pad, and it can be reloaded. Transporter erector launchers (TELs) cannot be mass-produced and exist in limited quantity, so a cold launch is crucial technology for consecutive launches when using a TEL.
(This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Correspondent Kentaro Nakajima, who is based in Seoul.)
Military response more likely as threat grows
Yoji Koda / Former Commander in Chief of the Self-Defense Fleet
This time, North Korea publicly announced the second test-firing of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14. The test-firing of Hwasong-14 on July 4 was not a test-firing to immediately put the missile into practical use. It is only after launching the missile a number of times that it becomes possible to use it in actual combat, so this second launch is a move toward actual use.
The latest test-firing of the Hwasong-14 showed an improvement in all measures when compared with the previous one — the altitude increased to about 3,700 kilometers from about 2,800 kilometers, travel time increased from about 40 minutes to about 45 minutes and total distance increased to about 1,000 kilometers from about 900 kilometers.
Last time, it is believed they had reduced the fuel burden and fuselage weight to around 60 percent, and the launch succeeded by restricting the output of the engine. It was the first attempt at launching an ICBM, so the North placed priority on ensuring a stable flight in order to collect enough data.
This latest test-firing was geared toward actual usage, so it seems as if it was to test the maximum ability of the missile. A lot of fuel was loaded, the rocket thrust was put at full power and the engine was revved up.
In May, the United States was successful in tests of intercepting an ICBM. This must have been an unexpected event for North Korea. The fact that North Korea carried out this test-firing in the middle of the night is seen to be in response to the United States’ increased ICBM interception abilities and to lower the amount of information available to the United States’ intelligence activities. Advance information that a mobile missile launch pad was seen in Kusong, North Pyongan Province, in northwestern North Korea, may have been a trick to confuse the United States.
Missiles of the same type as the Hwasong-14 were displayed in the military parade to mark the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung on April 15. It is thought the production of one or two Hwasong-14 missiles will shortly be completed. Though the first two launches used a lofted trajectory, in which rockets are launched at a higher angle than normal, from now on it will be necessary to confirm the maximum range of the missiles using normal trajectory. It is possible in the near future an ICBM that crosses over Japan with a range of 8,000 kilometers to 10,000 kilometers will be launched toward the Pacific Ocean.
The United States likely has almost no political or diplomatic cards to play. It will push military pressure to the limit and decide whether to actually take military action in accordance with the circumstances at the time.
However, it can be said we are entering a stage where the United States could launch an attack at any time as North Korea is making striking developments in its nuclear and missile program, which is intolerable to the United States. As time passes, the completion of an ICBM that points at the U.S. mainland is drawing nearer, meaning the only choice for the United States will be to take the “surgical treatment” route of attacking, or sitting back and allowing the situation to gradually worsen.
The Maritime Self-Defense Force uses the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors carried by Aegis-equipped vessels to strengthen its ballistic missile defense and places importance on being able to defend Japan by itself. This comes from the MSDF contributing to the stable operation of the U.S. military. In addition, Japan needs to thoroughly collect information on the surrounding areas and share it with the United States.
■Koda, 67, a former vice admiral of the Maritime Self-Defense Force, has served in various positions, including the commander in chief of the Self-Defense Fleet of the MSDF. After leaving the MSDF in 2008, he held positions such as senior fellow at Harvard University.
(This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Masakazu Matsushita.)
Japan must take lead in initiating 5-party talks
Mitoji Yabunaka / Former Vice Foreign Minister
The purpose of North Korea’s ballistic missile launch was surely to show that the U.S. mainland is within the reach of its missiles. U.S. media have reported New York will be in range in the near future, eliciting reactions including psychological stress.
This time, the missile was launched from an inland area of North Korea in the middle of the night. The North is showing off its ability to fight back — as if to say even if the United States embarks on military action “we will not be defeated by preemptive strikes.” In doing so, the nation is showing its intent to advance its nuclear and missile development. U.S.-South Korea military drills serve as no deterrent and cannot stop further provocative actions from the North.
There are many uncertainties about the North’s nuclear capabilities, including any capability it may have to load nuclear arms aboard missiles, but there is a view that North Korea could obtain an ICBM that reaches the U.S. mainland as early as next year. This is clearly a direly urgent matter.
North Korea knows it would lose in a war against the United States, and what it really wants is to have the United States enter negotiations. On the U.S. side, too, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis understands taking military action against North Korea would be difficult. However, it is doubtful whether either side actually has a proper strategy in place behind their actions. Either of them could make a mistake in judgment. This is an extremely dangerous situation.
The United States is currently suffering from “a lack of diplomacy.” The position of assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs is still vacant, so there is a lack of professional viewpoints on the matter. President [Donald] Trump expected cooperation from China, but the resolutions on North Korea’s ICBM launch on July 4 have yet to be adopted at the U. N. Security Council. This is where Japan should show its diplomatic initiative, putting to use the relationship of trust between Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe and President Trump.
However, using the U.N. Security Council for such purposes would be difficult. It is clear that imposing sanctions does nothing to change North Korea’s actions — on the contrary, it has only advanced its nuclear and missile development.
For the six countries involved in this nuclear problem, the time has come for better diplomatic talks among the five countries, excluding North Korea — that is to say, Japan, the United States, South Korea, China and Russia. Japan needs to take the lead and call for ministerial meetings among the five countries and use such talks as an opportunity to make it clear that the attitudes of China and Russia about the North Korean issue are mistaken.
It would prove an effective deterrent if China stopped providing oil to North Korea, but China remains cautious. It will not be easy to make China take action, but there needs to be a place for countries such as Japan and the United States to directly question China over its responsibility and discuss whether this is a matter that can really be left as it is. A five-country discussion is desirable for this.
Japan is different from the United States in that it already lies within North Korea’s missile range, and if there is a military clash between the United States and North Korea, Japan will be among the first to suffer the damage. If Japan begins to adopt a leadership role, it can avoid being kept out of the loop should the United States and North Korea meet directly.
■Yabunaka, 69, headed Japan’s delegation in the six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program when he was the director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau. He left the ministry in 2010 and is currently a visiting professor at Ritsumeikan University.
(This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Keita Ikeda.)