North Korea’s test of its newest, most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Thursday exposed the United States’ defense weaknesses in the face of the North’s growing ability to detonate a warhead anywhere in the United States.
By firing a Hwasong 17 missile from a location dangerously close to Pyongyang, the North challenged the United States to respond with more than just diplomatic rhetoric and act quickly to develop ways to shoot down missiles that could land anywhere on American soil.
“A multi-warhead ICBM risks overwhelming the limited number of missile interceptors deployed in Alaska and California,” said Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “The impact is putting the American homeland at risk, overwhelming the limited number of missile interceptors deployed in Alaska and California,” according to the Pentagon.
The latest ICBM test defied a long-standing ban on nuclear-weapons-carrying long-range missiles. It has also demonstrated that recent South Korean efforts to reach out to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for reconciliation have failed. North Korea’s last ICBM test, disguised as a satellite, took place in November 2017, and its sixth and final nuclear test took place two months earlier.
The North did not pretend that the ICBM that landed 670 miles away in waters near the large northern Japanese island of Hokkaido was just a satellite this time. The removal of the satellite cover “speaks volumes about Pyongyang’s belief that the Russia-Ukraine conflict and escalating tensions between the US and China have distracted the US,” according to Evans Revere, a former senior North Korea watcher at the US embassy in Seoul and Washington. North Korea now has a “window of opportunity to make a significant advance in its ICBM capabilities while posing the least amount of risk.”
The missile launch sounded the alarm in Japan. Nobuo Kishi, Japan’s foreign minister, described it as a “new class” of missile, much more powerful than North Korea’s Hwasong 15 missile fired in 2017.
North Korea demonstrated the Hwasong 17’s long-range capability by firing its latest version 3,850 miles into the atmosphere. The Hwasong 17 was paraded in Pyongyang in October 2020 with multiple launchers.
While the White House and State Department went through the motions of ritualistic condemnation of the test, South Korea responded by demonstrating its own might by firing missiles capable of striking targets anywhere in North Korea.
The South’s joint military staff announced tests of ground, sea, and air missiles just hours after reporting the North had launched the ICBM. South Korea has rarely, if ever, conducted all three types of tests in quick succession, but its military command stated that it wanted to demonstrate that it was ready and able to attack North Korean test sites.
Outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in, frustrated in his attempts to reopen dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, presumably authorized the test, which he denounced in a formal statement. President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who has promised to rebuild strong ties with the United States while supporting calls for denuclearization, has been a vocal opponent of his efforts.
Christopher Del Corso, the US charge d’affaires in South Korea, said the US and South Korea shared “the common goal of complete denuclearization,” but did not say how they would deal with the North.
The United States could not count on genuine support from other countries. The “normal reflex,” according to Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, would be to seek a UN Security Council Resolution, but he doubted that Russia and China would agree given the Ukraine conflict and ongoing tensions between the two countries.
Sue Mi Terry, director of the Wilson Center’s Korea program in Washington, was pessimistic. She said she expects more such tests in a panel hosted by CSIS. “I’m afraid we’re just getting started,” she admitted. “I’m anticipating more provocations.”
However, testing missiles is fraught with danger. A North Korean missile exploded about 20 kilometers up in the air after being launched from the Sunan site near Pyongyang in a previous test on March 16.