Is North Korea’s ICBM A Game Changer?


Kim Tae-woo Chair Professor, Dongguk University
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On July 4, North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the 11th missile launch of this year. Korean Central Television stated that “the Hawsong-14 ICBM flew 933km in 39 minutes, reaching a height of 2,802km.” The state TV declared that “the North has become a strong nuclear weapon state that can strike any place in the world.” Indeed, Pyongyang’s ICBM capability has now become a definite fact. If fired at a normal angle, the flight range would have been approximately 7,000km, and American experts also believe that it will be able to hit the U.S. mainland should the capability of the Hawsong-14 advances further.

To be sure, the rogue state has acquired ICBM capabilities, symbolic possessions of military super powers, on top of its intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) that can reach the U.S. military bases in Asia. In this vein, North Korea watchers in the United States have been eager to find out whether or not the North’s missile power will become a new game changer; in other words, they began raising questions regarding the possibility of Pyongyang’s missile power bringing about meaningful changes to Washington’s alliance and Asia policy. However, the answer to such questions is clear: we must stop the North from leveraging its ICBMs since such powerful game changer will force not only the United States but also alliance countries to pay a hefty price as a consequence.

If the North’s missile power, including ICBM capability, strengthens enough to become a game changer, the credibility of the U.S. defense pledges and nuclear umbrella may weaken. In case the communist regime’s missile power becomes strong enough to actually threaten the U.S. military bases in Asia and cities in the mainland, such capability will suppress the deployment of the U.S. forces for its allies and facilitate Pyongyang’s use of nuclear arsenal since American citizens will begin asking the following questions: “why should our sons and daughters risk the danger of nuclear attacks?” and “why should Washington and Los Angeles be threatened with nuclear attacks to punish Pyongyang for attacking our allies?” Surely, the North’s formidable missile capability will not only make U.S. allies vulnerable but also put Washington’s alliance policy in chaos and significantly damage the political and military authority of the country.

To this end, North Korea watchers are highly interested in China’s future direction as what Washington wants more than anything to put a stop to Pyongyang’s dangerous nuclear missile game is Beijing’s cooperation. China’s approach in dealing with the North’s nuclear missile game has been born out of the New Cold War; that is, Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capability is seen as a double-edged sword: an economic and diplomatic burden but a strategic asset in Asia undermining Washington’s influence in Asia. Consequently, Beijing has participated in the United Nations Security Council’s Resolutions against Pyongyang while informally helping its survival. Against this backdrop, China has refused to impose crippling sanctions against North Korea to prevent it from becoming a “monster with nuclear and missile capability,” and its stance has not significantly changed even after the historic bilateral summit between Trump and Xi in April.

Nonetheless, if the North’s missile power advances to become a game changer, it will not benefit strategic interests of China in the long run. The more Beijing defends Pyongyang playing with devilish fire, the further countries in the region will flyfrom China. As the international community’s anti-North Korea sentiment grows louder, it will become less likely for China to acquire the international leadership it desires. In addition, should China continues to cause unrest amongst neighboring countries based on its expansionist external policies seeking hegemony, the security order in East Asia will be ultimately reorganized — not in a favorable way to China — including self-defensive nuclear arming of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam potentially triggering the nuclear expansion domino. This is why, if seen from a different perspective, China can find many legitimate reasons why it should work with the United States and its allies to stop the North’s nuclear and missile power from blowing out of proportion to become a game changer.

Moreover, what is also important is that such reckless and dangerous nuclear and missile game does not guarantee the hermit kingdom’s future. As Pyongyang drags on its dangerous game, it will only give Washington more reasons to carry out extreme measures to stop further advancement; China and Russia could potentially change their stance or South Korea and Japan may reach the end of their patience. Additionally, North Korean people’s discontent will only grow due to isolation and poverty. In other words, as the regime clings to the advancement of nuclear and missile programs, the possibility of North Korea’s explosion and implosion grows.

To this end, Pyongyang must realize it is running towards the point of saturation, and Seoul is presenting it with a relatively safe way out by focusing on resolving the North Korean nuclear issues through dialogue and negotiations. President Moon highlighted the fact that a door for dialogue should remain open during his summit meeting with President Trump between June 29 and 30 though Pyongyang had launched missiles on a weekly basis. Also, on July 6, immediately after North Korea’s ICBM launch, he stated in Berlin that “if the DPRK stops its provocations and shows determination for denuclearization, Seoul will lead the effort to help Pyongyang.” The communist regime must acknowledge that the Moon administration’s suggestion is a precious opportunity which would help them avoid both explosion and implosion. Indeed, Pyongyang must brood on President Moon’s following statement: “now may be the last chance for North Korea to make the right choice.”