July 13, 2017 10:00 am JST

Pyongyang thumbs its nose and doubles down with ICBM launch

Regional power players powerless in the face of North Korea's latest test-firing

TSUYOSHI NAGASAWA and HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writers

North Korean armed forces gather at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on July 6 to celebrate the successful test-launch of intercontinental ballistic rocket Hwasong-14 in this photo released by Pyongyang. © Reuters

WASHINGTON/SEOUL North Korea crossed another red line with its July 4 test-launch of what the U.S. claims was an intercontinental ballistic missile. This has put pressure on Washington and the rest of the world to change tactics in dealing with North Korea -- tactics that have so far failed to sway the rogue state from further provocations.

Instead, Pyongyang seems intent on doubling down.

The test followed the country's July 3 holiday celebrating the founding of its strategic forces, a North Korean official told The Nikkei. The official said that it made the decision as a sovereign state, revealing that even Beijing had not been informed in advance of the launch.

North Korean television announced that the Hwasong-14 missile traveled 933km and reached a maximum altitude of 2,802km, falling into the Sea of Japan about 300km off the coast of Akita Prefecture in northwestern Japan.

The danger now is the prospect of North Korea pairing a nuclear warhead with an ICBM. U.S. intelligence feels that the North probably does not yet possess the ability to build one small enough to sit atop an ICBM. But the altitude attained during the test suggests that the reclusive state could eventually pose a real nuclear threat to the U.S. mainland if Pyongyang refines its warhead and re-entry technology.

Tokyo also reported that the maximum altitude far exceeded 2,500km. According to the government's analysis, the missile was launched in a so-called lofted trajectory, which sacrifices lateral range for greater altitude. Had it been fired with less loft, the missile could easily have traveled a good deal farther -- perhaps as far as Alaska or even the continental U.S., the official said.

Whether the missiles poses a real threat depends on Pyongyang's ability to protect the payload from heat generated during flight. An ICBM travels at around 7km per second, causing temperatures in the payload to rise above 3,000 C. This requires advanced technology and materials such as carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics to protect the warhead.

"At this point, North Korea does not yet appear to have perfected re-entry technology for ICBMs," the official said. Still, many believe it is only a matter of time.

With Pyongyang proclaiming a successful launch, South Korean President Moon Jae-in's conciliatory approach to its unruly neighbor may require rethinking. But Moon may have boxed himself in with his soft stance. He has already proposed that the two Koreas compete under a single flag during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, even asking assistance with his goal from International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach.

In response to the launch, U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises the next day, test-firing ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. The missiles -- South Korea's Hyunmoo Missile II and the U.S. Army Tactical Missile System -- can reach Pyongyang, demonstrating the allies' ability to carry out a precision strike on the North's leadership, according to South Korea's military.

Indeed, the military's wording was singular in that it rarely mentions "leadership," referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as a target.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met on the sideline prior to the Group of 20 summit in Germany, but failed to agree on how to deal with the North. Hopefully, whatever new tactics they pursue have better results than the old, which have gone nowhere.

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