North Korea’s willingness to repeatedly test fire missiles after failure is unusual, and reflects its commitment to rapidly expand its nuclear arsenal.
After a series of previous failures, Pyongyang achieved partial success with the most recent launches of its Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile.
On June 21, the two Musudan missiles traveled 150 and 400 kilometers—far short of a fully successful test but indicating incremental progress toward eventually achieving its estimated range of 3,500 kilometers. North Korea’s four previous Musudan test flights in April and May 2016 had all exploded shortly after launch.
Pyongyang achieved similar partial progress this year with its submarine-launch ballistic missile (SLBM) traveling 30 kilometers after several previous explosions immediately after launch.
The Musudan missile is assessed to be North Korea’s means to threaten U.S. bases in Guam, a critical node in allied plans for defending South Korea. Earlier this month, North Korea’s National Defense Commission warned that “The Korean People’s Army has long put into the range of its precision strike the U.S. bases and logistic bases for invading the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], including the Anderson Air Force Base on Guam where B-52Hs are deployed and naval bases for nuclear submarines.”
Pyongyang’s willingness to repeatedly test fire the Musudan and submarine-launch ballistic missiles so quickly after failures is unusual and reflects North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s commitment to rapidly augmenting his missile and nuclear arsenal.
In addition to the Musudan and submarine launches this year, Kim has tested a nuclear weapon, an intercontinental ballistic missile, reentry vehicle technology, a new solid-fuel rocket engine, and an improved liquid-fuel ICBM engine.
While North Korea continues development of the Musudan and submarine-launch ballistic missile systems, the regime has made greater progress on other missiles.
Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command, assessed that North Korea is capable of putting a nuclear warhead on the No Dong medium-range ballistic missile that can reach all of South Korea and Japan.
In April 2015, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, then-commander of U.S. Forces Korea, testified that North Korea “have stated that they had had intercontinental missiles and they had a nuclear capability, and they paraded it. As a commander, I think, we must assume that they have that capability.”
Other experts assess Pyongyang will have an ICBM capability in one to two years.
The accelerated pace of North Korean nuclear and missile tests reflect Kim’s intent to deploy a spectrum of missiles systems of complementary ranges to threaten the U.S. and its allies with nuclear weapons. Kim affirmed at the National Party Congress in May—the first held in 36 years—that North Korea will never negotiate away its nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests this year have caused near unanimity of view on the necessity of having more expansive and effective sanctions. But questions remain as to how firmly China—and the Obama administration—will implement recently expanded sanctions authorities.
South Korea, though firm on sanctions, hesitates in deploying sufficient missile defenses to protect its citizens and U.S. forces deployed there. South Korea does not have any ballistic missile defenses against a submarine-launch ballistic missile. The SM-2 missile currently deployed on South Korean destroyers only provides protection against anti-ship missiles. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, ballistic missile defense system that the U.S. wants to deploy to South Korea would enhance protection against North Korean land-based missiles such as the Scud and No-Dong.
Seoul has hesitated to allow deployment due to Chinese pressure.
Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, spent 20 years in the intelligence community working at the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency