North Korea signals intent to 'complete' its nuclear force

Hours after North Korea demonstrated yet more progress on its ballistic missile program, leader Kim Jong Un declared that his country has "finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force."

North Korean officials have said they won’t negotiate with the United States until the nuclear program is complete, leading to some chatter that Kim’s statement might open the door to diplomacy — but experts are dubious of Kim’s claim.

“I don’t think they’re all the way there yet in terms of being able to effectively deter the United States with a nuclear weapon,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest. “Shooting a missile up in the air and coming straight down doesn’t mean you have that capability. They have to prove it can go through the atmosphere, survive thousands of degrees and wind shears and then hit a target.” 

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North Korea carried out its latest missile test on Tuesday afternoon after a two-month lull. 

It was the country’s third intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, but the first of what North Korea is calling its Hwasong-15 missile.

The missile is said to have flown to nearly 2,800 miles high and for a distance of more than 600 miles. Flattened out to typical missile trajectory, experts said, that means the missile can travel a distance of more than 8,000 miles — far enough to strike anywhere in United States.

“The ICBM Hwasong-15 type weaponry system is an intercontinental ballistic rocket tipped with super-large heavy warhead which is capable of striking the whole mainland of the U.S.,” boasted a North Korean statement after the test.

The statement added the Hwasong-15 “meets the goal of the completion of the rocket weaponry system development” and that after watching the test, Kim “declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” 

President Trump pledged on twitter a new round of “major sanctions” on North Korea after a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

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“Just spoke to President XI JINPING of China concerning the provocative actions of North Korea,” Trump tweeted. “Additional major sanctions will be imposed on North Korea today. This situation will be handled!” 

Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonHillicon Valley — Blinken unveils new cyber bureau at State Blinken formally announces new State Department cyber bureau Hillicon Valley — TikTok, Snapchat seek to distance themselves from Facebook MORE said a range of sanctions are under consideration.

“We have a long list of additional potential sanctions, some of which involve potential financial institutions, and the Treasury Department will be announcing those when they’re ready to roll those out,” he told reporters at the top of a meeting with the crown prince of Bahrain. 

On Capitol Hill, reaction to the test was mixed.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Biden move to tap oil reserves draws GOP pushback MORE (R-S.C.), a defense hawk, warned that war is a possibility if North Korea doesn’t change course.

“If we have to go to war to stop this, we will,” he said on CNN. “If there’s a war with North Korea, it’ll be because North Korea brought it on itself. And we’re headed toward a war if things don’t change.” 

Meanwhile, Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinIt's time for Congress to guarantee Medigap Health Insurance for vulnerable Americans with kidney disease Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Democrats plow ahead as Manchin yo-yos MORE (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said now is the time for a “diplomatic surge.” 

“If left unchecked, North Korea will soon have an effective, if small, nuclear arsenal and the means to deliver it,” he said in a statement. “What is therefore required is an all-out diplomatic surge, led by the Trump administration in collaboration with China and our Japanese and South Korean allies, where Pyongyang verifiably halts its nuclear and ballistic missile testing and we initiate negotiations toward denuclearization.”

There were also several calls for tougher sanctions. Sens. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenSenators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama Democrats scramble to figure out shutdown strategy MORE (D-Md.) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R-Pa.), who authored a bill that passed out of the Banking Committee that requires sanctions on banks and companies that facilitate financial transactions for North Korea, said Congress and the administration need to take “immediate action.”

“North Korea’s nuclear ambitions threaten the United States and our allies, and their actions yesterday demonstrate we must finally put real teeth in economic sanctions and impose severe penalties on those who help finance the regime,” they said in a joint statement. “That will be the only way to pressure North Korea to the negotiating table.” 

But experts say North Korea has made clear it will not negotiate until it has a nuclear weapon capable of striking the United States.

And despite Kim’s claim to the contrary, there remain several variables and unknowns that cast doubt on North Korea’s capabilities, said Robert Gallucci, the chief U.S. negotiator during the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis.

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For one, he said, despite Kim saying the missile is capable of carrying a “super-large heavy” warhead, it’s unclear if it carried one during the most recent test. If it didn’t, the missile might not be able to travel as far when it carries a nuclear warhead and North Korea will need to conduct more tests.

Second, Gallucci added, it’s unknown whether the re-entry vehicle for the missile survived. In past tests, the re-entry vehicle burned up, and that technology has remained a hurdle to North Korea’s goal of having a nuclear weapon capable of striking the United States.

The third question, he said, is whether North Korea is going to follow through on its threat to conduct an atmospheric nuclear test. In September, in response to Trump’s United Nations General Assembly speech, North Korea’s foreign minister raised the possibility of a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean. 

Kazianis, of the Center for the National Interest, said “all bets are off” on how the United States would respond to an above ground nuclear test.

“That might be a red line for the entire world,” he said. “North Korea is literally playing with fire if they do that.”

For now, he said he doesn’t expect North Korea to be open to talks for another nine months to a year — when it’s projected North Korea will have completed its nuclear program. Kazianis said he took Kim’s statement more as a message to North Koreans than the international community. 

“I don’t think he’s ready to talk yet,” he said. “I think it was a signal to his general public that this is the reason you’ve been starving for 30 years. … Just like any politician, he has to show some sort of benefit to his policies.”