After firing an intercontinental ballistic missile higher than ever before, North Korea this week said it had mastered nuclear-strike capability and become a full-fledged nuclear state. That claim was immediately met with skepticism, not least in the White House.
But by showing that its missiles can reach Washington — even if there is doubt that North Korea can deliver a nuclear warhead there — Pyongyang took yet another step toward that goal. Its latest test raised a question the United States and its allies seem likely to have to answer sooner or later: Is it time to accept that North Korea will never give up its nuclear arms, and try to reach a deal to stop its arsenal from growing further?
China and Russia have been pushing for an agreement that would freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear program, in exchange for a suspension of joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea. The United States rejects the idea; officials said the administration would stick to its strategy of marshaling international pressure on the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, to give up his nuclear weapons.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump vowed to impose “additional major sanctions” on the North, though he got ahead of his bureaucracy by saying on Twitter that they would be announced that day. White House officials said the Treasury Department was still drafting the measures.
Trump, who had reacted cautiously to news of the launch, also returned to name-calling, labeling Kim “Little Rocket Man” and a “sick puppy” in an unscripted aside during a speech Wednesday about tax cuts in St. Charles, Missouri.
At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council convened Wednesday evening, U.S. Ambassador Nikki R. Haley called on China to stop providing North Korea with crude oil, threatening unilateral action if Beijing continued to resist that drastic step.
“China must show leadership and follow through,” she said. “China can do this on its own, or we can take the oil situation into our own hands.”
Haley said the United States was not seeking an armed conflict with North Korea, but that “if war comes, make no mistake, the North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed.”
The North has repeatedly made clear that it would never give up its nuclear ambitions. But its statement after this week’s launch — saying it had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force” — seemed to suggest that it had attained them. If so, at least in theory, it might be open to stopping there.
That would fit into what many officials and analysts have long believed to be Kim’s game plan. They say he wants to have his country recognized as a nuclear power so he can then gain concessions, such as the easing of sanctions, in return for a freeze of his nuclear arsenal.
“The North Korean push for a nuclear missile deterrent is ‘complete’ when Kim Jong Un says it is,” said Daniel R. Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs until last March. “He hasn’t demonstrated a viable re-entry vehicle. He hasn’t conducted an atmospheric nuclear test.”
“Instead,” Russel said, “he’s chosen to declare victory, which in my view means that he is likely to pause provocations in the expectation that China, or better yet the U.S., will start making proposals for de-escalation instead of denuclearization.”
But even if the North were signaling now that it is open to such discussions, for the United States and its allies to accept it might be politically impossible. It would mean a break from decades of nonproliferation policy, and it could trigger a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia.
North Korea, Russel said, would demand sanctions relief — a form of “ransom” or “hush money” — in return for a pledge to be less provocative.
Analysts in South Korea doubted that the North was signaling a willingness to discuss a freeze. Rather, they said, Pyongyang is blustering to buy time, and it will not be seriously interested in talks with Washington until it truly acquires the capabilities it claims to have, after more tests.
The North said its launch was of a new ICBM called the Hwasong-15, which it said could deliver “super-large heavy” warheads anywhere in the mainland United States. It flew higher and longer — to an altitude of 2,800 miles, and for 53 minutes — than the earlier Hwasong-14 missile did when the North tested it twice in July.
On Wednesday, North Korea’s state-run news media released photographs of Kim inspecting and celebrating the launch a day earlier. Missile experts said the Hwasong-15 looked like the North’s older Hwasong-14 but appeared to have a more powerful second stage. North Korea has also deployed a new nine-axle missile transport-and-launch vehicle, according to the photographs.
But there are reasons to suspect that the North was exaggerating its capabilities. Though the missile flew high, the North did not send it far; it splashed down in waters just 600 miles from the launch site. Nor has the North shown that it has a warhead that can survive the intense heat and friction of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere from space, a crucial technological hurdle.
On a normal trajectory, a missile that can soar 2,800 miles into space could indeed fly far enough to reach New York and Washington from North Korea, missile experts said. But they said the North could have launched its missile this week with a very light mock warhead or no payload, sending it farther than it could go with a real warhead.
“North Korea is bluffing,” said Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University near Seoul, the South Korean capital.
Kim has boasted in recent months that his country was in the “final” stage of achieving the full capabilities of an ICBM. Shin Beom-chul, a security expert at the government-run Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul, said the North needed to announce it had done so before the end of the year. “What North Korea announced today was not a technical but a political pronouncement,” he said.
Even if the North were open to discussing a freeze, there has been no indication that the United States and its allies would respond positively. Washington insists on a “complete, verifiable and irrevocable dismantlement” of the North’s nuclear arsenal.
Administration officials said there was no change in policy following the launch. They said they were still analyzing data to determine how much of a technical advance it represented. And they pointed out other shortcomings in the North’s program, including its inability to deliver a nuclear warhead, let alone over long distances.
China, which expressed “grave concern and opposition” over the latest launch, has continued to push for talks about a freeze. President Xi Jinping sent a special envoy to Pyongyang this month to urge Kim to consider it. But Kim did not even meet with him, and he further insulted Beijing by conducting its latest missile test only days after the envoy’s departure.
There was no indication at the Security Council that China was prepared to take additional measures.
Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said the North had everything to gain at this point by provoking China and the United States.
“For Pyongyang, the way to get sanctions lifted is not through making concessions, but resorting to further escalation,” he said.