They’ve done it again: the North Koreans successfully conducted another missile test on Friday, lobbing a missile over 1,000 km into the Sea of Japan. Within hours, the worst news was confirmed by the Pentagon (via the AP):
The missile launched Friday by North Korea was an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, the Pentagon said, marking the second time this month Kim Jong Un has demonstrated a theoretical capability of striking a portion of U.S. territory.
The missile was launched on a lofted, or heightened, trajectory that limited the distance it traveled, but data collected by U.S. radars, satellites and other sensors showed that it was theoretically capable of traveling at least 5,500 kilometers on a normal trajectory. That is the minimum distance to be classified by the U.S. as an ICBM.
Soon after the launch, top American and South Korean brass began discussing potential military responses to the test. Meanwhile, at an emergency National Security Council session in Seoul, President Moon Jae-in called for the U.S. to bolster “strategic deterrence,” and requested that additional THAAD launchers be deployed in his country—a stunning turnaround for a President who came to office vociferously opposed to the anti-missile system. At a moment when many South Koreans are clamoring for a nuclear arsenal of their own, Moon clearly understands that this is no time for dovish engagement with the North.
The only alternative seems to be… more pressure. After the previous ICBM test, the Trump Administration promised a global effort to ratchet up the economic pressure on North Korea, including with secondary sanctions on Chinese companies that illegally do business with the regime. The administration has already taken baby steps in that direction, but it is sure to march further up the escalation ladder in response to Pyongyang’s latest provocation.
Meanwhile, intelligence officials are warning that North Korea could have a nuclear-equipped ICBM as soon as next year, far faster than once expected. The clock is ticking, the road is running out, and good strategic options for dealing with the crisis are as elusive as ever.