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Fumio Ota

【#483】Pyongyang’s Doubtful Claim of Completing Nuclear Force

Fumio Ota / 2017.12.06 (Wed)

December 4, 2017

     On November 29, North Korea’s state-run news media reported that Pyongyang successfully launched a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) named Hwasong-15 that could strike the “entire region of the U.S. mainland.” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared that North Korea had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force,” the Korean Central News Agency said. However, the missile flew on a lofted trajectory that is far higher than a normal trajectory. In the absence of a missile launching using a normal trajectory, it is premature to conclude that the development of the missile is completed. In response to the Pyongyang claim, U.S. President Donald Trump said “nothing changed” in his approach to North Korea.
     When North Korea launched another ballistic missile over Japan on September 15, Kim declared his country had “nearly” completed the building of its nuclear force. His latest claim of “completing” the nuclear force indicated his eagerness to get hastily a strong bargaining card against the United States in any case.

Difficult atmospheric reentry for ICBMs
     While the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) launched in a lofted trajectory on May 14 reportedly achieved a successful atmospheric reentry, the Hwasong-14 ICBM also launched in a lofted trajectory on July 28 failed to reenter the atmosphere, according to media reports quoting analyses by Japanese, U.S. and South Korean officials. The Hwasong-15 ICBM, subject to the latest firing, “likely broke up” upon reentry into the atmosphere, CNN reported on December 2, indicating that the missile failed in its atmospheric reentry.
     An analysis of a North Korea-launched missile is usually based on the information obtained by U.S. surveillance satellites tracking infrared. But it also requires correlating multiple tracking data including those from aegis destroyers and the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force radars, taking considerable time even with computers used fully. Accordingly, no conclusion can be given at present on whether the Hwasong-15 launching was successful or not.
     An ICBM’s atmospheric reentry speed is given at 7 kilometers per second, faster than about 2 km/s for an IRBM. The speed is expected to force a pointed warhead of an ICBM to be transformed into a hemispherical shape. Whether the Hwasong-15’s warhead survived the atmospheric reentry or not may remain opaque till data about the latest missile firing are fully analyzed.

U.S. nuclear umbrella losing credibility
     North Korea had remained silent for more than two months after its third launching of the Hwasong-12 IRBM flying over Japan on September 15. The latest missile firing showed that the pause did not mean North Korea had been restraining itself from conducting provocative actions. The pictures of Hwasong-12, -14 and -15 show that Hwasong-15’s transporter erector launcher (TEL), booster rocket and warhead are considerably larger. North Korea only took time to develop the larger Hwasong-15.
     North Korea’s ICBM development, even if not complete at present, will likely be completed within one year. Then, the U.S. nuclear umbrella provided to Japan will inevitably lose its credibility. As a matter of course, Japan should take countermeasures in preparation for such event.

Fumio Ota is a JINF Planning Committee Member and retired Vice Admiral of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force.