It’s been about two years since Kim Jong-un launched a missile capable of hitting the entire US, declared his nuclear weapons programme “complete” and halted all ICBM tests.
In that time, the North Korean leader has also become an even bigger threat to America.
Kim’s testing freeze ushered in unprecedented diplomacy with US President Donald Trump, leading to historic meetings in Singapore, Vietnam and the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas. But at the same time, Kim has been busy churning out fissile material for bombs and developing new missile technology that could make the next big launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) even more concerning to Pentagon military planners.
A series of shorter-range missile launches in recent months have improved North Korea’s ability to make solid-fuel ballistic missiles that are easier to move, hide and fire than many of its liquid-fuel versions. That makes it more likely he’s on course towards developing an ICBM that uses solid-propellant technology, potentially giving the US less warning of an imminent strike anywhere from California to New York.
‘Sense of Urgency’
Trump has brushed off North Korea’s missile tests, which Japan and others say violate United Nations Security Council resolutions, signalling to Kim that he can continue developing his weapons programme as long as he doesn’t fire off another ICBM. But that position may soon cost the US president: Kim is threatening to up the stakes if Trump doesn’t meet a year-end deadline to ease up on sanctions choking his country’s economy.
“Fundamentally, they’ve realised creating a sense of urgency on the US side is a good negotiating tactic,” said Mintaro Oba, a former American diplomat who worked on Korean Peninsula issues.
Cooperation between the US and South Korea is being tested by a Trump demand for the long-time ally to pay about five times more from next year to host US troops. Meanwhile, North Korea has delivered blunt statements recently that have referenced Trump’s campaign appearances and point to another ICBM test.
“We, without being given anything, gave things the US president can brag about but the US side has not yet taken any corresponding step,” a spokesman for the State Affairs Commission headed by Kim said earlier this month. He added that the US will face a “greater threat” if it does nothing.
Return of Rocket Man
North Korea froze all missile testing after its November 28, 2017, launch of a Hwasong-15 ICBM, which flew about 2,800 miles into the atmosphere — roughly the distance from New York to Los Angeles. Then in May it resumed the programme with a vengeance, firing off nearly two dozen solid-fuel ballistic missiles since then to make it one of the most active testing years since Kim took power in December 2011.
Solid-propellant ballistic missiles can be hidden in warehouses, rolled out on a mobile launcher and fired quickly. Liquid-propelled missiles, on the other hand, can be easier to spot by spy satellites monitoring vehicles that carry fuel and oxidiser needed for a launch. “Given what we’ve already seen in the country, if they rolled out a solid-propellant ICBM in the next six months to a year, I wouldn’t be shocked,” said Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at Federation of American Scientists who specialises in North Korea’s weapons systems.