The Development Of North Korea’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program: Faster Than Expected


While many easily dismissed North Korea’s nuclear capabilities before just three months ago, it is time to seriously evaluate North Korea’s nuclear threats.

At the beginning of July 2017, North Korea announced that it had successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea officially stated that the missile it tested reached an altitude of 2,802 kilometres and flew 933 kilometres in 39 minutes. According to ABC News, co-director of the Global Security Program at the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, David Wright, said that North Korea’s newly tested missile could reach a maximum range of 6,700 kilometres “if the missile had been fired at a standard trajectory.”

If the missile could reach the range of 6,700 kilometres, North Korea would have a capacity to fire its nuclear warheads to Alaska, the South and Southeast Asia, and the Northern part of the Australian Continent. The developing nuclear capability of North Korea creates more tensions and causes greater instability in the Asia-Pacific region especially, in an era when the U.S. leadership is not as stable as it was before.

So, why is it so difficult to resolve the North Korean nuclear issues?

What Does North Korea Want?

North Korea’s nuclear program officially started in 1952. An escalation-de-escalation cycle generally existed between North Korea and the US throughout North Korea’s nuclear developments. Two notable crises were the First Nuclear Crisis in the 1990s and the Second Nuclear Crisis in the 2000s. The two nuclear crises contributed to two famous failed peace talks, the 1994 Agreed Framework and the Six-Party Talks. While the contemporary policy-makers still consider denuclearization top priority in dealing North Korea’s nuclear issues, it is important to learn from past failed lessons.

Externally speaking, the persistent security issues on the Korean Peninsula had been underlined by the Sino-American distrust and strategic competition before the Second Nuclear Crisis. The existence of North Korea has been important for China because China considers North Korea a buffer zone between itself and the U.S. and its allies. On the other hand, the persistent nuclear threats from North Korea also legitimize the presence of the U.S. military in the East Asian region.

However, North Korea has never fully committed to China. The distrust towards China was shown when North Korea refused to open the country as suggested by China in the 1970s, and when Kim Jong-un purged the pro-China bureaucrats in his party. Nevertheless, North Korea must know that the policy-makers, or some of them, in China still consider North Korea an important asset. The fact that China does not want to give up North Korea has given North Korea more leverages over China. Indeed, North Korea’s pursuits throughout its negotiations with different international players have shown that North Korea’s primary goal was to pursue a negative security guarantee from the U.S. instead of taking into consideration of China’s concerns.

However, North Korea’s pursuits may have changed in the post-2009 era. As argued by Victor Cha, North Korea’s decision to exit Six-Party Talks and its subsequent nuclear tests may show that it now pursues a U.S.-India deal. With its increasing nuclear capability, it is now safer to contemplate that North Korea is looking for been acknowledged as a legitimate nuclear state instead of a pure negative security guarantee from the U.S. With its fast-developing intercontinental ballistic missile capability, it is likely to see North Korea give up its pursuit of a negative security guarantee from the U.S. faster than expected.

What To Do?

Since North Korea has changed its pursuit, it is more difficult to achieve denuclearization by offering what has been offered before. Therefore, it might be more effective to only aim at partially de-nuclearizing North Korea instead of total denuclearization. If the terms could be negotiated, the external players should allow North Korea to keep its nuclear capability for civilian use only. In other words, the international community should be aiming at removing North Korea’s offensive nuclear capability.

Conclusion

It is unlikely that either North Korea or the international community will step back from pursuing the current situation unfolding in North Korea. However, partially denuclearizing North Korea may be the most practical strategy in the current deadlock. Nonetheless, difficulties do exist with the implementation of this strategy. Nevertheless, the U.S. and China should put aside their strategic competition and work together towards the common goal, as a North Korea with developed nuclear capability is more dangerous and unstable than two established nuclear states.