North Korea Test-Fires ICBM: Thermonuclear Test Coming

As we predicted, North Korea test-fired a Hwasong-14 Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) on July 3rd that the US Pacific Command has identified as an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM). The Hwasong-14 based on this test appears to be very close in range to the threshold for an ICBM at greater than 5500 kilometers, but some experts have cautioned that it is not there yet. Most effective ICBMs have a range of 10000 kilometers. By way of comparison, on May 14th of this year North Korea successfully launched a liquid-fueled, possibly single-stage, road mobile Hwasong-12 IRBM on a lofted trajectory. The Hwasong-12 reached an altitude of 2111.5 kilometers and travelled 786 kilometers before breaching Japan's Air Defense Identification Zone and splashing down in the Sea of Japan in a 30-minute long flight. If it had been fired on a normal trajectory instead of being fired straight up it could have flown an estimated 4500 kilometers. As well, the warhead survived the 5000 degrees Celsius extreme vibration experienced on re-entry in another technological achievement. Analysts have previously said that the largest challenges to North Korea's ballistic missile program was to develop a survivable re-entry vehicle and miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to enable it to be mounted on a missile. The May 14th test was North Korea’s most successful demonstration of it ballistic missile program to that date.

The July 3rd test-fire of a Hwasong-14 IRBM reached an altitude according to the Japanese Defense Ministry of more than 2500 kilometers (2802 kilometers according to North Korea) and traveled 930 kilometers in a 37-40-minute flight. The higher a missile can go, the greater the range. In this case, the Hwasong-14 appears to have a range greater than the 4500 kilometers Hwasong-12 IRBM launched on May 14th. David Wright, a US missile expert has warned that if the reported time and distance are correct, that the Hwasong-14 could have a possible maximum range of 6700 kilometers, putting Alaska in its range. Hawaii and the rest of the Continental United States such as Washington State and California remain outside the Hwasong-14’s maximum range. At this point in time, it seems highly likely that the very last hurdle that the North Koreans must cross to have an effective ICBM capability is a miniaturized nuclear warhead. The North Koreans have yet to test a thermonuclear device, but it seems that they are very close to doing so.

International reaction has been one of concern with the Japanese and the US condemning the launch. South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, has called on the UN Security Council to take steps against North Korea. Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has said that "repeated provocations like this are absolutely unacceptable" and Japan would "unite strongly" with the US and South Korea to put pressure on Pyongyang. Russia and China have expressed concern and demanded a halt to North Korean missile tests and US-joint military exercises in the region. The biggest issue now is that if Kim Jong-un was prepared to cross the ‘red-line’ of testing an ICBM that can hit the US, in this case Alaska, what will stop him from conducting the long-expected nuclear test of a thermonuclear device? By all accounts the preparations at North Korea’s nuclear test facility remain in place for a test. It seems that China has limited ability to hold back North Korea’s ICBM and nuclear ambitions based on yesterday’s test or it simply does not care about the implications of North Korean actions. Lastly, if all reported facts are accurate and North Korea has tested an ICBM, then it is only a matter of time before it sells that technology to Iran. 

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