North Korea claims to have conducted their first successful test of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) on Monday night.  According to North Korean reports, this new platform is capable of striking the mainland United States.

The United States military tracked the missile’s trajectory throughout the test, determining that it remained aloft for 37 minutes and demonstrated a marked improvement over previous missile platforms seen tested by Kim’s regime.  Experts estimate, based on the performance of Monday night’s test, that North Korea’s ICBM may be capable of traveling as far as 4,000 miles, placing U.S. assets in Alaska well within Kim’s reach.

The missile traveled only 578 miles on Monday night before crashing into the sea between North Korea and Japan, inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, but the duration of its flight speaks to the altitude it is capable of reaching.  Maximum altitude is a more important determining factor in overall range capabilities than distance covered to target for ballistic missile weapon systems.  Based on the distance covered and time airborne, it is believed the missile may have reached an altitude of as high as 1,700 miles.

PACOM initially described the missile as intermediate in range, however, South Korean and Japanese officials are currently studying the flight data to determine whether the new platform is truly a global-strike ICBM.

You can’t hardly fire a missile from North Korea that’s got a thousand-kilometer range without it going into somebody’s exclusive economic zone. The bottom line is, they’ve flown it very high so that they can test the range of the missile. If they were to shoot it on a normal trajectory, it’s probably going to go out 6,000 or so kilometers. By definition, anything over 5,500 kilometers is an ICBM,” Bruce Bennett, senior international/defense researcher at the RAND Corp., said.

Further complicating matters is the launch platform used by North Korea’s military to fire the missile: the large truck, painted drab green, appears to be a converted Chinese timber truck.  This development highlights concerns about how best to enforce military-based sanctions on Kim’s reclusive regime, as the U.N. has banned the delivery of military equipment to North Korea, but controls over such potentially “dual use” assets are far less stringent.

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China has claimed its desire to pursue a denuclearized Korean peninsula for months, but as North Korea’s primary trade partner and ally, it stands to reason that they may have been aware of Kim’s intent to convert the vehicle into a military application.  China has provided the U.N. with copies of the end-user certificates for six such trucks delivered to North Korea for use in the timber industry, and the United Nations ruled the violation was likely North Korea’s, rather than China’s.

It seems likely then that there are at least five other trucks capable of delivering ICBMs to different locations for deployment – making it much more difficult to track and potentially target North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

China responded to this latest advancement by once again calling for restraint.

“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is sensitive and complex,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang. “We hope all relevant parties will exercise restraint and avoid taking actions that may escalate tensions.”

It is important to note that, although experts have postulated as to whether or not Kim’s North Korean regime is capable of miniaturizing a nuclear warhead for delivery in such a missile, there is no official consensus as to whether or not they have achieved such an engineering feat.  Although North Korea has conducted no less than six successful nuclear detonation tests, finding a way to fit such a device into a missile’s warhead is a considerable challenge.

If expert estimates are accurate about this new platform, which North Korean media outlets are calling the Hwasong-14, it may not be able to reach the lower 48 states that make up the mainland United States quite yet, but that may serve as little comfort.  Increasing the range of such a missile in order to strike the West Coast of the U.S. is a fairly small challenge when compared to previous hurdles already overcome by Kim’s ballistic missile programs.

This test comes just days after President Trump, alongside South Korean President Moon, declared that the U.S.’ patience with North Korea is “over.”

The North Korean dictatorship has no regard for the safety and security of its people or its neighbors and has no respect for human life — and that’s been proven over and over again,” the President said.  He then added that “The nuclear and ballistic missile programs of that regime require a determined response.”

 

Images released by North Korean government state-owned media outlets