The Trump administration threatened new sanctions on North Korea on Wednesday after the reclusive government shattered 2½ months of relative quiet with its most powerful weapon test yet, an intercontinental ballistic missile that some observers believe could reach Washington and the entire U.S. Eastern Seaboard.
President Donald Trump tweeted that he spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping about Pyongyang’s “provocative actions,” and he vowed that “additional major sanctions will be imposed on North Korea. This situation will be handled!” Trump’s top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, said the U.S. could target financial institutions doing business with the North.
The U.N. Security Council, meanwhile, held an emergency meeting Wednesday afternoon. After the launch, it said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “declared with pride” that his country has achieved its goal of becoming a “rocket power.”
The fresh deliberations about new forms of punishment for North Korea came after its government said it successfully fired a “significantly more” powerful, nuclear-capable ICBM it called the Hwasong-15.
“The estimate has always been that they could hit most of the continental U.S.,” said Gary O’Connell, a retired chief scientist and former missile expert at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “I think they’ve now proven that.”
NASIC provides ballistic and cruise missile threat analysis to the nation’s highest-ranking political and military leaders. The intelligence agency has watched North Korea’s missile capability for years, according to O’Connell.
The latest missile launch “is concerning because it demonstrates that they’re continuing their progress and at each stage they learn more and demonstrate their confidence in what they’ve done,” he told this newspaper. “The more confident they are the more willing they might be to use it in a conflict if they feel it might actually work.”
Still unanswered: Could a North Korean warhead survive a flight through the Earth’s atmosphere, O’Connell said.
The launch of the Hwasong-15 lofted the missile more than 2,700 miles into space before it splashed down nearly 600 miles near a target in the Sea of Japan, reports said. A flatter trajectory could have put it within the range of about 8,100 miles, one scientist calculated.
“Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington, D.C., and in fact any part of the continental United States,” U.S. scientist David Wright wrote in a blog post for the Union for Concerned Scientists.
Observers have questioned if the missile lofted a heavy payload into space or was empty, however.
Thomas Karako, director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the launch was not “a panic moment” but a validation of years of missile development in North Korea. The regime has pursued a wide range of missiles in recent years, he added.
“There’s still some additional shoes to drop,” he told this newspaper. “There’s going to be some additional missile types forthcoming if they really want to achieve the capability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the whole of the United States as opposed to an empty missile.”
Still, he said, the U.S. must act. “The U.S. military has to posture and behave as though they (North Korea) may have that capability already.”
Glen Duerr, associate professor of international studies at Cedarville University, said the U.S. should continue B-1B bomber flights over the Korean peninsula “to sound a warning” to North Korea. The U.S. also should pursue tighter economic sanctions while it urges China to clamp down on “black market trade” with North Korea, he said.
The firing was a message of defiance to the Trump administration, which a week earlier restored North Korea to a U.S. list of terror sponsors. It also ruins nascent diplomatic efforts, raises fears of war or a pre-emptive U.S. strike and casts a deeper shadow over the security of the Winter Olympics early next year in South Korea.
A rattled Seoul responded by almost immediately launching three of its own missiles in a show of force.
South Korean President Moon Jae-inMoon has repeatedly declared the U.S. cannot attack the North without Seoul’s approval. But Washington may act without South Korean input.
Donna M.Schlagheck, a terrorism expert and retired chairwoman of the political science department at Wright State University, urged multi-lateral diplomacy with Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea to resolve the back-and-forth escalation raising tensions between the United States and North Korea.
“For people who study the pattern by which states go to war, accidentally or intentionally, this is part of it,” she said.
The interaction between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is troubling, she added.
“It’s a pattern of interaction that’s deeply troubling when you factor in the nuclear capability,” Schlagheck said. “…I shudder to think how grave a catastrophe could be triggered if we don’t at least have the most modest of diplomatic contacts being nurtured before the Olympic torch is lit again in Seoul.”
The U.S. has a total of 44 ground-based missile interceptors in Alaska and California, and Congress has pushed to add about 20 more, noted Ian Williams, associate director of the CSIS missile defense project. “That’s the only system we have right now deployed that is capable of defending the United States against an ICBM-class missile,” he said.
A more multi-layered missile defense, from launch to a prior to hitting a land target, is needed, he said.
O’Connell said ground-based interceptor tests have demonstrated “they’re effective in tests, but those are highly scripted scenarios. (Adversaries) only have to be lucky once,” he added. “We have to be successful a hundred percent of the time in order to counter these things.”