Just days after North Korea test fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that experts say is capable of reaching major U.S. cities like Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago, new video footage suggests that a key part of the missile broke into pieces upon re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The evidence—taken by the Japanese public broadcaster NHK—was first identified by Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, who blogged about the issue on 38 North, a research site affiliated with Johns Hopkins University.
According to Elleman, the missile’s re-entry vehicle (RV) shed “small radiant objects” before dimming as it returned to the earth’s atmosphere on Friday, suggesting that it disintegrated prematurely. “Had the RV survived the rigors of re-entry,” he writes, “it would have continued to glow until disappearing behind the mountains.” Here’s more from his analysis:
A reasonable conclusion based on the video evidence is that the Hwasong-14’s re-entry vehicle did not survive during its second test. If this assessment accurately reflects reality, North Korea’s engineers have yet to master re-entry technologies and more work remains before [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un has an ICBM capable of striking the American mainland.
This finding is indeed significant, given the international response to North Korea’s latest ICBM test. On Saturday, President Trump criticized China for doing “nothing” to alleviate North Korea’s continued missile testing after receiving “hundreds of billions of dollars a year” from trade with the U.S. “We will no longer allow this to continue,” Trump warned, though his strategy remains unclear. As my colleague Krishnadev Calamur pointed out earlier today, imposing diplomatic pressure—including hefty sanctions—on North Korea has done little to curb the nation’s missile program, which Kim Jong Un seems intent on pursuing at all costs.
Whether North Korea actually intends to deploy an ICBM, it has succeeded in instilling fear in the U.S. and neighboring countries like South Korea and Japan. On Saturday, South Korea announced that it would begin discussions with the U.S. to build a more powerful set of ballistic missiles to defend itself against North Korea—a deviation from South Korean President Moon Jae In’s previous policy of increased dialogue. While some argue that the move could pressure China to intercede in the North Korean conflict, others say it will simply exacerbate tensions.
If confirmed, the failure of North Korea’s latest ICBM test could buy the Trump administration more time to devise a strategy that goes beyond negotiations with China. On Monday, Elleman told reporters that it could take another three to six months, and a “handful” of tests, for North Korea to correct the design flaw that led to its failed test on Friday. Like many U.S. intelligence officials, Elleman estimated that North Korea could be capable of deploying an operational ICBM by early next year. But “if they continue to fail,” he said, “it could take a longer period of time.”
Friday’s test marked North Korea’s 14th missile test this year, and its second test launch of an ICBM. While the range of the nation’s missile tests appears to improve with time, experts wonder whether North Korea is using lighter payloads to make the launches appear more advanced. “It is important to keep in mind that we do not know the mass of the payload the missile carried on this [latest] test,” David Wright, the co-director for the Union of Concern Scientists’ Global Security Program, wrote on Friday. According to Elleman, “no one outside of North Korea knows” whether the nation is capable of constructing a nuclear bomb light enough to reach the U.S.