After 74 days of silence, North Korea test-fired its third and most successful intercontinental ballistic missile to date on Tuesday night, triggering another frenzied response from the US media and the usual bluster from Washington hawks pining for another pre-emptive war.
Initially, the North’s explanation that its test marked the final completion of its plan to become a “rocket power” and a “full-fledged nuclear force,” combined with the subdued reaction from President Trump (“we will take care of it”), seemed to suggest that something may be afoot on the diplomatic front.
“There is a considerable likelihood that North Korea will propose dialogue with the US while promising to do its duty in the international community as a nuclear power,” Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, told the liberal Hankyoreh in Seoul. He predicted a shift in Pyongyang “toward a peace offensive.”
And on Wednesday, the Washington Post held open the tantalizing possibility that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, by declaring that the ICBM test had accomplished “the historic cause of the national nuclear program,” may finally be open to direct talks to end the crisis.
Ralph Cossa, president of the CSIS Pacific Forum and a longtime player in US Korea policy also floated this scenario. “Once Pyongyang is convinced that we are convinced that it can reach the U.S. mainland with an ICBM, it will be willing to discuss a freeze” on its programs in return for a lifting of the heavy sanctions imposed by the UN, he told reporter Anna Fifield.
Cossa was referring to the “freeze-for-freeze” proposals endorsed by China and Russia that would require the North to suspend its missile and nuclear tests in return for a reduction in the US-South Korean military exercises that Pyongyang sees as a mortal threat. So far, the Trump administration has firmly rejected such a swap.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, one of the lone voices for diplomacy in the administration, also seemed to suggest a softening of US policy in the hours after the test. Speaking at the White House with Trump, he called the launch “a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten everywhere in the world, basically.”
That reference to R&D, which the administration has not used before, is much softer than standard US language on the North Korean nuclear program and is certainly far less militant than the apocalyptic language used by Trump, Mattis, and others prior to their state visit to Seoul earlier this month.
Turn in Tone
By Thursday, however, it was clear that Trump was holding firm and would continue with the sanctions and military pressure that have defined his policies towards Pyongyang. The only difference was that his previous role of condemning and threatening the North had been passed to Nikki Haley, his hawkish ambassador to the United Nations.
“If war does come, it will be because of continued acts of aggression like we witnessed yesterday,” Haley told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, where she demanded that other countries sever all economic and political ties with North Korea. “And if war comes, make no mistake—the North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed.”
There was little doubt that the potential 8,000-mile trajectory of the Hwasong-15 rocket tested by the North could put much of the United States in range of its weapons. According to Joongang Ilbo, the missile flew nearly 960 kilometers after peaking at an altitude of 4,500 kilometers before landing inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone. “Had it been fired at a normal angle, the missile could have flown more than 10,000 kilometers, which easily passes the 5,500 kilometer threshold to qualify as an ICBM,” Joongang Ilbo reported.
Some analysts cast doubt on those claims, however. In a dispatch from Seoul, The New York Times’ Choe Sang-hun suggested the North may be exaggerating its capabilities. He cited Kim Dong-yub, a defense analyst at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, who said the North would not halt its tests “until it had test-launched an ICBM on a normal trajectory over the Pacific and proved an atmospheric re-entry technology.” The proud televised announcements on the test from Pyongyang were “likely for domestic propaganda,” Kim said.
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For anyone closely watching the situation from outside, however, the test was no surprise. In recent public declarations and unofficial talks with American specialists, North Korea has emphasized that its weapons program is aimed at deterring the United States. Once it completes development of a missile capable of hitting the United States, it has suggested that it would be prepared for peace talks.
“Before we can engage in diplomacy with the Trump administration, we want to send a clear message that the [North] has a reliable defensive and offensive capability to counter any aggression from the United States,” a North Korean official told CNN in October. More recently, its foreign ministry reiterated its stand to the US experts and former officials it meets with regularly.
“In our talks, the North Koreans have maintained that they are not striving to be a nuclear state with a big arsenal, but rather to have enough weapons to defend themselves,” two of those officials, Suzanne DiMaggio and Joel Wit, wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times on November 7. The North’s assertions that they “have entered the last stage in the development of their nuclear force” implies “that they have an endpoint in mind,” they added.
Speaking to CNN after the initial reports of Tuesday’s test, former CIA analyst Sue Mi Terry of the Center for Strategic and International Studies seemed to agree with that assessment. “North Korea was going to do this anyway,” she said in a clear attempt to calm the discussion down. “This is very well calculated.”
Talk of War
But cautionary voices rarely appear in US media coverage of North Korea, and this week was no exception. On MSNBC, for instance, reporter Katy Tur responded to an alarming report from NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel by wondering aloud if the US military was planning to evacuate the thousands of American soldiers and civilians in South Korea. No, Engel responded: that would be a sign of imminent war and is something the North is “watching closely.”
Meanwhile, over on CNN, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham repeated his line that a war on the Korean Peninsula will be necessary if Kim doesn’t back down. “We’re not going to let this crazy man in North Korea have the capability to hit the homeland,” he told Wolf Blitzer. “I hope the regime understands that if President Trump has to pick between destroying the North Korean regime and the American homeland, he’s going to destroy the regime.”
Similar comments came from Marc Thiessen, a conservative analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. Trump should “take out the test site from which the North Koreans launched the missile,” he wrote in a commentary for Fox News.
Talk like that has alarmed peace and arms-control advocates. “There’s an increasing chorus that you hear in Washington that we have to go to war, that we have to take military action, to stop the North Korean threat,” Joe Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC Tuesday night. “It’s starting to feel like 2002, when a consensus was growing that the only thing we can do is go to war” even though negotiations hadn’t been tried, he said.
Cirincione, who called the ICBM test a “very serious step forward” for the North, pointed to recent reports that the US government has said privately that if Pyongyang halted its testing for 60 days, that would be the signal Washington needed to begin direct dialogue with the Kim regime. Yet, despite the North’s 74-day stoppage, “we didn’t move towards any negotiations,” he noted.
Still, there were signs some kind of talks may be in the offing. On Thursday, the Times’ David Sanger—who has been the conduit for dozens of leaks from US intelligence about the North Korean nuclear program—described the potential for a cold war-style containment policy that would require both a freeze as well as a diplomatic solution.
“Many inside the Trump administration privately agree” that a freeze agreement would be advantageous as an interim solution because “it holds the prospect of preventing the crisis from growing worse,” Sanger reported. “Without testing, the North cannot demonstrate to the world it has a weapon that can truly reach the United States.”
But, as Tuesday’s launch demonstrated, it may be too late for that.