On November 28, after a 74-day weapons-testing hiatus, North Korea launched its third intercontinental ballistic missile. From a technical standpoint, the ICBM test was impressive, exceeding the performance of North Korea’s two prior long-range missile tests on a number of metrics. Just as importantly, it laid bare a fundamental flaw in the Trump administration’s approach to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions: the notion that there remains any window of opportunity in which the United States can keep him from acquiring a mature nuclear capability deliverable by ICBM.
The notion that North Korea has not yet achieved these most advanced capabilities has helped fuel the administration’s apparent interest in preventive military strikes against Pyongyang. The reality, however, has long been that Kim intends to retain his most dangerous capabilities—including the ability to strike the United States. It is long past time for Washington to develop a strategy that carefully manages, rather than blithely denies, this state of affairs.
North Korea’s latest missile flew for nearly 1,000 km at an altitude of 4,500 km and stayed aloft for over 50 minutes before splashing down east of Japan. By contrast, its previous ICBMs, which were both tested in July, flew for 37 and 47 minutes, respectively. Indeed, North Korea has tested these missiles at lofted trajectories, firing them straight up into the air at steep angles to achieve a long flight time without circling the earth. (If the November 28 missile had been fired on a standard missile trajectory as opposed to a lofted one, it might have flown for 13,000 km or 8,100 miles.) This latest test allows North Korea to claim that it can hit the entire continental United States with a nuclear weapon.
Three additional aspects of this latest test are notable. It took place at night, simulating the operational conditions North Korea would actually use in a wartime scenario; it may have relied on a new ICBM variant that North Korea hasn’t tested before; and it may have used a mobile missile launcher, making it basically impossible for the United States to strike or to threaten to strike a test site. In short, North Korea’s missiles are increasingly sophisticated, increasingly survivable, and functionally capable of putting the entire U.S. homeland at risk.
From a strategic perspective, this latest test is not a game-changer. Since 2006, North Korea has had a nuclear capability that poses a threat to U.S. allies and bases in the region. Its first two ICBM tests this summer demonstrated that it could very nearly strike the entire United States—it was only a matter of time until the full continent came into range. Moreover, experts have long believed that North Korea was unlikely to surrender its nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. Most observers believe that Kim Jong Un has sought nuclear weapons to deter the United States from toppling his regime. His regime would therefore continue to develop both programs until they were sophisticated enough to threaten the United States—not because it intended to start a nuclear war, but because it wanted to deter the United States. By this logic, an operational North Korean ICBM capability has been long in the making.
What this third test does lay bare, however, is a fundamental flaw in the Trump administration’s approach to Pyongyang. Since the early days of his presidency, the president has sought the total and complete disarmament of North Korea. At the very least, he and his advisers have resolved that North Korea should not gain the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon. But because few expect North Korea to denuclearize, Trump’s objective strikes many as impossible.
Alongside these maximalist goals, top administration officials have also routinely threatened the first-use of American force, presuming this would stop North Korea from completing its nuclear and missile programs. Trump’s “fire and fury” comments, for example, suggested that the United States might strike North Korea in retaliation for mere threats. He and his advisors have also repeated their belief that the North Korean leader is irrational, undeterrable, and suicidal—a logic which, if sincerely believed, would seem to make U.S. military action inevitable. Importantly, this case for preventive action is premised on the idea that the United States and the world are “running out of time” to halt North Korea from acquiring these gravest of capabilities. According to this narrative, it would be better to strike North Korea now rather than face its most sophisticated capabilities later.
Even after this latest ICBM test, the Trump administration’s unattainable goals appear unchanged. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized that the U.S. objective remains full disarmament. Despite Defense Secretary James Mattis’s comments that North Korea could now apparently strike the entire world, Trump himself insisted “we will take care of it.” By clinging to the notion that North Korea can still be denuclearized and denying that it has achieved a long-range strike capability, Trump and his team gave themselves room to develop futile, dangerous military options that guarantee regional devastation. This logic is premised on the notion that there remains a window of opportunity for action, when, in fact, North Korea has now emphatically slammed shut that very window.
By denying North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities and insisting that there remains time and space for military action, the Trump team raises the risk of conflict on the Korean Peninsula. By threatening to start that conflict themselves, they raise the chance that Kim will miscalculate and lash out first. This same policy also dares him to continue testing nuclear weapons and missiles in an ever-more flagrant manner, if only to impress Trump; the North Korean leader has already threatened to conduct an atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean.
The time to stop North Korea from acquiring sophisticated nuclear weapons and missiles passed years ago and cannot be recouped. Instead, Trump would do well to adopt a North Korea strategy that acknowledges its ability to deter the United States, and aims to contain its reach and deter its dangerous actions. This will assure America’s regional allies, prevent proliferation, and, eventually, open a window for diplomacy to limit Pyongyang’s programs.