The U.S. was scrambling for an effective response over the weekend after North Korea on Friday launched a game-changing intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. mainland.
North Korea launched the Hwasong-14 missile which it claimed had a “large, heavy nuclear warhead” at 11:41 p.m. on Friday night from a new launch pad near the Chinese border.
The official [North] Korean Central News Agency said it reached an altitude of 3,724 km and traveled a total distance of 998 km for 47 minutes and 12 seconds. South Korean and U.S. analysis data confirmed this.
According to calculations by David Wright, a missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the missile if angled properly could have Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago well within range, and could reach as far as New York and Boston.
If North Korea is really just a few steps away from being able to deliver a nuclear attack against the continental U.S., the basic framework of efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang will have to change.
U.S. President Donald Trump vented his frustration in one of his intemperate tweets on Saturday. “I am very disappointed in China… they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!”
But it was unclear how he envisages putting any more pressure on China.
Until now, the U.S., South Korea, China, and Japan have been trying to get North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons and missile program by offering economic aid and security guarantees. But that was predicated on the North being some way short of developing a missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland. North Korea clarified the purpose of the test, saying it was an armed protest targeting the U.S., which confirms that South Korea and other regional countries of little concern to Pyongyang.
The U.S. is now under increasing pressure to take some kind of direct action since the North has stepped over the “red line” set down by South Korea and the U.S. for North Korean provocations to trigger a military response. But any military response could trigger an all-out war that would probably bring China into the fray.
The latest missile was launched in Chagang Province, just 30 km from the Chinese border. The area is an obvious a buffer zone, where China would tolerate no missile strikes from the U.S.
Lee Cheol-woo, a member of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Sunday, “Even if the U.S. wants to launch a preemptive strike, it can’t because of the proximity to China’s border.”
North Korea has apparently deployed both the KN-08 and Hwasong 14 long-range ballistic missiles in North Pyongan Province and Chagang Province near the border with China.
North Korea also appears to be testing the alert levels of the U.S. and South Korean militaries. CNN and other news media reported Thursday, the 64th anniversary of the armistice in the Korean War, that there were signs of an impending North Korean missile launch in North Pyongan Province. But the actual launch took place further east.
There were also projections that a launch would be difficult due to rains, but the surprise launch on Friday night appears to have been an attempt to catch the U.S. and South Korean troops off guard.
The U.S. on Sunday sent two B1-B bombers to Korean skies as a show of force, but it has done the same before without notable deterrent effect on North Korea. Attempts to prevent further missile tests by sending large aircraft-carrier fleets to nearby waters have also had no obvious effect.