North Korea's latest missile test sends China a clear message

North Korea has tested another missile and initial indications suggest that it has the technical capability of reaching Washington, D.C. 

More importantly, and yet unreported, is the type of fuel used, the demonstrated payload capacity and the associated warning time of impending launch detected by intelligence assets. Within this data is the knowledge of how close the North Koreans are to achieving global nuclear strike capability. 

Regardless of whether data of the necessary granularity to understand North Korea’s technical capability is ever released to open sources, little has changed in the strategic stand-off with the reclusive regime. North Korea continues to steadily march toward combining a nuclear warhead with advanced ballistic missile technology. 

ADVERTISEMENT

What we have learned from the recent launch is that U.S. diplomatic efforts with China to rein in their North Korean proxy, even if successful at the level of the interlocutor, are ineffectual in practice. It is also clear that strong language from administration officials has not had the desired outcome of tempered North Korean behavior. 

 

Thus, U.S. options to directly limit North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile technology advances — preemptive tactical nuclear strike, preemptive conventional attack or significant blockade — remain limited and are fraught with predictable and unforeseen negative consequences as discussed in my previous piece in this publication on this subject. Indirect methods remain the only viable options.

The U.S. must remain steadfastly committed to a denuclearized North Korea. Diplomatic and military efforts must continue unabated toward that goal; first through ongoing engagement with China and Russia to cooperatively pressure the North Koreans to suspend and ultimately surrender their nuclear weapons program. 

Secondly, Congress must sustain the efforts initiated earlier this year to bolster missile defense technology to buy time should North Korea achieve its ultimate aims sooner than diplomatic efforts take hold.

As incumbent nuclear powers, it is in both China’s and Russia’s strategic interests as well as our own to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the technology to deliver them effectively around the globe. It is also in their interest to accelerate the timeline in achieving this goal before the U.S. invests heavily in advancing anti-ballistic missile technologies that could also be used to defeat their own arsenals. 

While a nuclear-armed North Korea may appear to only threaten the U.S. today, Chinese or Russian acquiescence in this situation could easily lead to an ever-growing number of nuclear-armed nations exponentially increasing the threat of a global nuclear conflagration with disastrous consequences for all.

Any potential offensive action on the part of North Korea, nuclear or conventional, will result in the near certain and immediate annihilation of the regime. Furthermore, even if they do successfully test a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile with global reach and limited launch warning, they would still be years and perhaps decades away from strategically threatening the United States. 

The announcement of support for significantly increased missile defense spending shortly following North Korea’s nuclear tests earlier this year followed by diplomatic efforts with China, albeit dissatisfying slow, remain the best course of action. 

This latest missile launch re-emphasizes the point that this is China’s problem to solve and the U.S. military’s problem to mitigate; until it isn’t. Time remains, but it is not infinite.  

Cmdr. Michael Nordeen is a national security affairs fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and former Olmsted Scholar in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Navy or Department of Defense.