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What to Watch for If North Korea Conducts a Missile Test


By Troy Stangarone

In recent days there has been increasing speculation that North Korea is preparing to test a long range missile. While any test would violate UN resolutions prohibiting Pyongyang from conducting long range missile tests and represent an additional destabilizing act on North Korea’s part following so closely on the heels of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, it would also reinforce the regime’s continued commitment to the development of deployable nuclear weapons.

With the January 6 test North Korea has now tested four nuclear devices. However, developing reliable delivery systems remains the key to Pyongyang possessing a viable nuclear deterrent.  According to U.S. sources, the recent nuclear test likely tested some components of a hydrogen bomb. If those components move North Korea closer to miniaturizing its weapons or towards a more powerful hydrogen bomb, additional testing of its long range ballistic missile technology would be an important next step in developing a deployable nuclear deterrent.

While North Korea has appeared to be preparing for launches in the past only to refrain, if it should proceed with a test there are a series of issues to watch for relating to the test itself and the reaction of the international community.

What Type of Missile Is Tested?

North Korea’s successful satellite launch in 2012, which is generally considered to have been a cover for testing an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and would use some of the same constituent parts, was conducted using an Unha-3 rocket. Based on debris recovered after the launch it is estimated that missile used to put North Korea’s satellite in orbit has a range of 6,200 miles, which would enable it to hit western portions of the United States.

In the past, North Korea has hinted at the development of missiles with a longer range than the Unha-3, such as through displays at military parades. Though, these missiles have generally been found to be mockups that were not flight worthy. However, North Korea has upgraded its launch facilities to accommodate more powerful missiles. If North Korea moves forward with a test in the near future, the first question will be is this a test of a refined Unha-3 rocket or a new missile technology with a longer range?

Is It a Satellite Launch?

North Korea has yet to make any of the official notification to the International Maritime Organization on trajectory and splashdown locations as it did with the 2012 satellite launch. If a test does occur, one issue to watch will be whether North Korea uses this launch or a future one to test the viability of one of its missiles being able to withstand the stress of reentry into the earth’s atmosphere.

Mastering the ability to build a ballistic missile capable of withstanding the forces of reentering the earth’s atmosphere, including the heat shielding needed to withstand temperatures up to 7,000 degrees Celsius, is a key component to developing a workable ICBM. During the Cold War the United States and Soviet Union undertook extensive testing of this characteristic in the course of the deployment of new missiles.

In North Korea’s case the United States believes that Pyongyang has mastered the technology that is necessary for an ICBM to achieve reentry despite the lack of a test to date. This assumption is prudent for the purposes of planning and developing contingencies. However, a successful test would further increase the deterrent value of North Korea’s weapons program by demonstrating that it has mastered the technology.

The Parts That Are Retrieved

After North Korea’s successful satellite launch in 2012 the United States was able to recover part of the missile used to deliver the satellite into orbit. The recovered front section of the missile indicated that Pyongyang was developing the cone to the dimensions required to carry a nuclear payload and reenter the Earth’s atmosphere. Any recovered parts from a future test could provide insights into how reliable North Korea’s design is, how long until it could be operational, and the nature – domestic or foreign – of the parts used to construct the missile.

Does Japan Shoot Down a North Korean Missile Test?

In 2012, Japan ordered its military to shoot down any North Korean missile entering its territory. A similar order was given in April of 2014.  As North Korea successfully launched a satellite in 2012,and did not conduct a test in. 2014, Japan has yet to actively target a North Korean missile test. However, with the prospect of North Korea again conducting a missile test Japan’s military has been placed on alert and ordered to shoot down any North Korean missile.

Will Japan take shoot down a North Korean missile test? It may depend on a series of factors. The first being whether North Korea provides proper notification of a satellite launch to the International Maritime Organization. Second, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who was not in power in 2012, may see value in denying North Korea the data that a successful test would provide. Though, he’d have to weigh that outcome with considerations of any North Korean response to an attempt to shoot down a test and its impact on the ongoing sanctions discussions in the UN Security Council, especially if North Korea claims in advance that it is a peaceful satellite launch.

How Swiftly New Sanctions Move Through the United Nations and U.S. Congress

After each subsequent North Korean nuclear test the United Nation’s has increasingly taken longer to pass new sanctions legislation. After North Korea’s first nuclear test the Security Council passed a resolution in 9 days. As we wait for the Security Council to act in response to the January 6th test the time from the test to a new resolution has passed the 23 days it took after the third test.

Security Council Resolutions Graphic

The U.S. Congress has moved more swiftly with House of Representatives taking only 6 days to pass new sanctions legislation. The Senate recently passed new legislation through committee and it is expected to come to the Senate floor soon. However, the Senate’s legislation differs from the House requiring a conference committee to develop a joint piece of legislation.

If North Korea moves ahead with test it raises a series of questions about sanctions. Will the test spur quicker movement in the United Nations and will the U.S. Congress move more swiftly to send the president new authority to sanction entities dealing with North Korea? Also, would a missile test remove Chinese, and likely Russian, objections to stronger international sanctions against North Korea?

How China Responds to a Missile Test

As noted, China has been reluctant to date to support the level of sanctions that the United States, South Korea, and Japan are pushing in UN Security Council. While a missile test could potentially make China more amenable to stronger sanctions, another key issue to watch will be whether China takes any bilateral actions to express its displeasure to Pyongyang. After North Korea’s third nuclear test reports indicated that China cut off exports of oil to North Korea for five months and after North Korea’s hack of Sony there were reports that China may have helped to cut off North Korea’s access to the internet. While any bilateral actions may be hard to verify, they would be another means for China to pressure North Korea to reign in its weapons programs and return to talks.

South Korea’s Reaction

Since North Korea’s nuclear test, South Korea has increasingly signaled that it is strongly considering deploying the United States’ Thermal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD missile defense system. China has continued to urge South Korea to take caution in deploying THAAD, but one area to watch after a North Korean missile test will be if South Korea speeds up its review on the potential deployment of THAAD to the Korean peninsula.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from United Nations Photo photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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  1. […] programs. While negotiating and passing a new resolution took the Obama Administration more than twice as long as any prior resolution in response to a North Korean nuclear or missile test, the result is far and away the strongest set […]


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