In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Kim Jong Un’s North Korean regime ended a 10 week lull in ballistic missile testing with the first ever launch of an all new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile platform they’ve named the Hwasong-15. Based on early figures regarding its flight time and the maximum altitude the missile reached, this new platform is unquestionably the most powerful warhead delivery system the nation has yet to field, with a range that places America’s East Coast, including Washington D.C., squarely within its sights. However, based on reports from Japan, old issues appear to persist with the missile’s reentry vehicle – and despite Kim’s claims, the reclusive state still has not mastered the necessary final step in executing a successful nuclear strike.
“After watching the successful launch of the new type ICBM Hwasong-15, Kim Jong Un declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power,” a North Korean television presenter announced on air after the launch, which took place under cover of darkness, unlike most previous tests, which have occurred at dawn.
In the days prior to the launch, North Korea was observed relocating mobile launch platforms and South Korea has reported radio chatter that supported the idea that Kim’s regime was gearing up for another test launch. This is of particular import, because the decision to mobilize Kim’s nuclear arsenal in advance of the launch would seem to indicate a shift in strategy from research and development of platforms to full-fledged war drills. Relocating assets would delay U.S. and allied responses, as intelligence experts scrambled to analyze new satellite images to track and locate the real-time location of other nuclear platforms. Doing so prior to Wednesday’s test would seem to indicate that North Korea’s military has begun training for actual offensive launches, suggesting they believe their nuclear program is nearing full operational capability.
More so, the relocation of assets prior to a test launch once again reduces the number of warning signs American and allied intelligence officials can rely on when anticipating an attack. By using solid fuel rockets, missiles can be fired with very little prep time, whereas liquid fuel missiles require a lengthy fueling process that would likely be identified in satellite images. The relocation of assets, which could be seen as an indicator of an offensive, will likely now become common practice prior to missile test launches, ensuring the U.S. can not be certain if a launch will be yet another test or the beginning of nuclear war until the missile is airborne and its trajectory can be mapped by NORAD and other Defense assets.
Based on the Hwasong-15’s duration of flight, which was a reported 53 minutes, and its peak altitude of approximately 2,800 miles, North Korea’s latest missile should have a potential range that exceeds 8,100 miles, per the calculations of David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists. This range places all of the United States within Kim’s scope, as well as the vast majority of the world at large, barring portions of South America and Antarctica.
But it’s not all doom and gloom from the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s previous long-range tests have been riddled with reentry vehicle failures. The reentry vehicle protects the missile’s nuclear warhead as it travels back through the earth’s atmosphere toward its intended target. The impact of oxygen molecules in the atmosphere during reentry creates incredible amounts of friction that results in heat, and it’s the task of the reentry vehicle to suffer that burden on behalf of its explosive payload; keeping the complex weapon intact until it reaches the surface, or near surface, for detonation. A failed reentry vehicle would likely not result in a detonation itself, particularly in a dual stage, or thermonuclear warhead – which requires the precision function of internal components to illicit not one, but two detonations in rapid succession. Instead, a failed reentry vehicle would likely result in nothing but a spectacular light show and a whole lot of debris.
According to numerous social media posts from the western coast of Japan, that’s just what many saw as North Korea’s new crown jewel came tumbling down to earth. Although the Japanese Ministry of Defense has not released an official statement indicating the failure of the Hwasong-15 reentry vehicle, Japan’s defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, was quoted by Sky News as saying that it did indeed fail. That statement is supported by numerous eye-witness accounts of debris falling near Japan, as well as historical precedent from previous long-range tests.
That’s not the only challenge that remains. Although North Korea claims the Hwasong-15 was equipped with a “super heavy” dummy warhead that approximates the weight of an actual thermonuclear weapon, without confirmation, it remains likely that the missile’s range could be hindered by the immense weight of an actual nuclear warhead. Though, the weight of the warhead launched in Wednesday’s test will likely never be revealed.
The first test of the Hwasong-15 may not have been the rousing success North Korea claims it was, but it still marks yet another significant improvement in Kim’s ballistic missile program, despite continued efforts to stifle his progress through financial sanctions levied by the United States and United Nations alike.
One day before the launch, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov claimed North Korea had frozen their ballistic missile program as part of an effort to honor the Chinese and Russian championed “mutual freeze” of military actions between the U.S. and North Korea. He went on to claim credit for this success in the name of Russian efforts, and accused the United States of failing to work toward a diplomatic end to heightening tensions. At the time, SOFREP reported that the Russian statements were almost certainly not a characterization of actual North Korean foreign policy, as the nation always slows or halts missile testing during their incredibly important harvest season, in order to allocate resources toward feeding the nation’s hungry populous.
Less than 24 hours later, those suspicions were proven right by North Korea’s launch – meaning Russia may have shown its hand as a diplomatically uninvolved party that is merely working to undermine the American position in the region, rather than one that is actually amid an active pursuit of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, as they claim to be.
Formally, China has simply dusted off the same remarks they’ve issued each time North Korea conducts such a test, calling on all parties to “act cautiously and work together to safeguard peace and stability in the region.”
Feature image courtesy of KCNA