North Korea may launch another missile in a matter of days, according to anonymous reports by several U.S. defense officials — and this time, it could be another ICBM.
On Tuesday, a U.S. official who wished to remain anonymous told AFP that the Pentagon believed the North Koreans were planning a new missile test for Thursday, July 27, the 64th anniversary of the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War. The North Koreans refer to July 27 as “Victory Day.”
The Pentagon official said the launch is expected to be another test of either an intermediate-range missile or potentially an intercontinental ballistic missile. Back in May, North Korea tested the Hwasong-12 rocket, which experts said was an “unqualified success”, demonstrating the country was clearly on the path to a functional ICBM in the near future. The U.S. official said this week’s potential test could be of the KN-20 or a Hwasong-14, the successor to the Hwasong-12.
On July 4, the country tested the Hwasong-14. The exact range of the missile is unknown, though one projection puts it at about 4,500 to 5,000 miles. The most ambitious projections for the missile suggest it could have the range to reach Hawaii and Alaska, though this is speculative.
In May, Melissa Hanham, a Senior Research Associate in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program (EANP) at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies told Inverse that a two-stage missile or functional ICBM — like the Hwasong-14 tested on July 3 — completely changes the risk calculus around North Korean missile launches.
“Once they get to that point it’s going to be really dicey diplomatically around the world,” Hanham said. “It’s going to be very difficult for people to tell when it’s a test and when it’s the start of a war.”
Right now, part of the question of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities rests not only on its missiles but on its warheads. The country has claimed it has successfully miniaturized nuclear weapons to fit on an ICBM, but obviously has not tested a live payload on a missile yet. A new report in the The Washington Post says the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency believes that North Korea will have a fully functional, nuclear-armed ICBM as early as 2018.
On July 15, North Korea’s KNCA released a statement painting its nuclear ambitions as a deterrence against nuclear threats from the U.S. “The DPRK has a nuclear deterrence for its self-defense and has steadily strengthened it in every way to protect its dignity and sovereignty of the nation to cope with the arbitrary nuclear threats from the US,” the statement read.
A second anonymous official told AFP that the North Koreans had increased certain aspects of military activity in the past few days. “They’re setting up for something,” the official said.
The South Korean news site Yonhap reported that a government source told it South Korean intelligence had observed transporter erector launchers carrying ICBM launch tubes in North Pyongan province.
For the past three weeks, U.S. officials have been working to push through a tougher set of sanctions against the North Korean regime, working with Chinese diplomats. “I think we are making progress,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said.