North Korea just conducted its seventh missile test launch so far this year. No one should expect this activity to cease, and no one should be surprised by North Korea's progressively more advanced weapons capabilities, analysts said at a recent Mitchell Institute forum on Capitol Hill, hosted by the author.
"During Kim Jung Un's five years in power he has done twice, perhaps three times, as many launches of missiles as his father did in 18 years," said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
The North Korean dictator is not showing any signs of slowing down, and he is determined to push forward the country's program to enhance the medium and long-range missiles and nuclear warheads that now threaten the United States and its allies.
Klingner estimates that North Korea has 16 to 20 nuclear weapons. "And then, of course, the question or the debate is how far along they are," he said. "I think it is pretty clear they've weaponized and miniaturized the warhead, that right now the Nodong medium-range ballistic missile is already nuclear capable." This means U.S. allies Japan and South Korea are under a nuclear threat today, he stressed. "It is not theoretical, it is not several years in the future as some analysts or experts will tell you."
The threats posed by North Korea are wide ranging, Klingner noted. "They've got, we estimate, 5,000 tons of chemical warfare agents." And it has a sophisticated army of cyber warriors. "They are, perhaps, in the top five or top three countries in the world for cyber attack capabilities."
Missile attacks are, it seems, what worries U.S. policy makers the most. A rising concern are submarine-launched ballistic missiles because of the immediate risk they create for South Korea. "The North Korean subs can come out on the east or west coast and threaten South Korea," Klingner said.
North Korea successfully tested a Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile last year, and they "flew it to an unusually high trajectory," he said. "Had they lowered the trajectory and fired it for effect, the estimates are it could have ranged Guam. So that's a new threat to a key node for the U.S. defense of the Pacific."
Keeping U.S. officials up at night is the possibility of an ICBM launch. North Korea has developed several systems. One of its most advanced systems is a space launch vehicle, Klingner said. "But it's the same technologies you would need to fire off an ICBM warhead."
As USAF General John Hyten, Commander of United States Strategic Command, said on May 9th at a Strategic Deterrent Coalition nuclear symposium, that the North Koreans now have the range capability to strike the United States with a ballistic missile. "It is a matter of physics and math" he explained.
The news media and independent experts have pointed out that North Korea's ICBMs could reach Alaska, Hawaii or even the Pacific Northwest. But these missiles are said to have a range of 10,000 kilometers, which means they would hit Missouri, or 40 percent of the continental United States, said Klingner. "After they did the successful launch last year, now the estimate is probably 13,000 kilometers, which is all the way down to Miami, the entire continental U.S."
Another cause for alarm is the number of rocket engine tests, he said. "They took the first stage of a solid fuel ICBM, to see if it works." Rocket scientists, just by looking at the photos, were able to say that they're using two engines, which are better than the ones U.S. experts thought they were using. By the size and shape and color of the exhaust plume, analysts concluded, the North Koreans are "using a much-improved propellant than we thought."
At the same forum, Joseph Bosco, a Senior Fellow at the ICAS Institute for Korea-American studies, noted "A major headache for the United States is that much of the financial and technological support for North Korea's weapons programs comes from China".
"Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s," Bosco further explained, "North Korea began its program to develop nuclear weapons. China provided the necessary startup technology through the A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan....Today China accounts for 90% of North Korean trade with the outside world. Let's face it, China keeps the Kim regime afloat, alive and well, and capable of continuing to invest in advancing it's nuclear and missile programs." Bosco said. "There is significant evidence that it directly facilitates the ongoing nuclear and missile programs through China's banking system and the use of Chinese ports and airports for the trans-shipment of prohibited North Korean parts and technologies."
Bosco further said that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had told the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2012 that China was irrefutably providing advanced technology for North Korea's ballistic missile program.
"It has been clear for 60 years that the sole cause of tension and instability between the Koreas has been Pyongyang's own bizarre and dangerous behavior. Despite substantial aid and concessions from an accommodating South Korean government, China alone has the power to change that."
Klingner said it remains to be seen how the Trump administration deals with these foreign policy predicaments. "When I've talked to folks in the administration they have described the policy as a heavy emphasis on sanctions and pressure and targeted financial measures." The administration also apparently wants to augment ballistic missile defense and has indicated a "willingness to have our diplomats talk with their diplomats," Klingner said. "The door has always been open, but it is North Korea that repeatedly closes the door."
As Bosco emphasized, it is China that has to come clean.
It is also evidently China that has created a neighboring Frankenstein monster that keeps escaping from its nuclear laboratory. Reining-in North Korea is possible, but without strong Chinese economic and military pressure, which the Chinese seem loath to give, the North Korean nuclear challenge may be insurmountable.
A model of the North Korean Unha-9 long-range rocket on display at a floral exhibition in Pyongyang. (Image source: Steve Herman/VOA News/Wikimedia Commons)
Dr. Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981, and was the senior defense consultant at the National Defense University Foundation for more than 20 years.