The Missile Test: It's the Capabilities, Stupid



I have been waiting to write on the test because it matters what was actually tested, and initial reports in that regard were contradictory. But as the news comes in, it is almost all bad: despite the short trajectory of the test, it appears to conform with Kim Jong-un’s massive investment in significant new capabilities.

Missile tests have two objectives. The signaling motive in this case was pretty clear. The struggling Trump administration had had a pretty good ten days with respect to Asia: a successful trip by Secretary of Defense Mattis to Korea and Japan; the restatement of the one-China policy with President Xi, even if under some duress; and the Abe summit. The Mar-a-Lago summit had a number of strange moments, but it nonetheless affirmed the alliance. Why not throw cold water on the meeting by reminding everyone that North Korea is still there?

But missile tests are not just for show; they are ultimately about the development of capabilities. The acceleration of North Korea’s testing under Kim Jong Un—neatly documented in an infographic from the CSIS Missile Defense Project—has both quantitative and qualitative dimensions. The numbers are straightforward: 4 tests in 2012, 8 in 2013, 18 each in 2014 and 2015 and 23 in 2016. The majority of these 70 tests—42—have been short-range Scud variants. But in 2016, the tests included the long-range “satellite” launch in February, a succession of Musudan tests, at least one of which succeeded, a Nodong that landed within 125 miles of Japanese waters, several submarine-launched ballistic missile tests as well as a ground test of a new rocket engine. A crucial aspect of these tests is the shift from liquid- to solid-fueled engines. John Schilling explains the implications:

“[Solid fuel rockets] require little maintenance, can survive rough handling and off-road transport, are less prone to leaking toxic, corrosive vapor at the slightest provocation, and even the largest solid-fuel missiles can be launched on a few minutes’ notice. That last characteristic is going to be particularly important for North Korea, as South Korea’s missiles can reach targets anywhere in the North in the fifteen minutes or so it would take to fuel and ready a liquid-fuel missile for launch.”

Solid-fuel thus contributes to survivability, in part through mobility; this test was conducted using a transporter erector launcher (TEL). But it also moves the crisis management game into a more knife-edged state in which anticipation of attack could lead to “use ‘em or lose ‘em” calculations.

And this, of course, on top of the two nuclear tests.

The initial assessment of the launch held that it was a Rodong, then that it was a Musudan. The Musudan, with a potential range of 2500-4000 kilometers at a payload of 1,000 to 1,250 kg., has been the current preoccupation. A recent technical assessment at 38North by Ralph Savelsberg and James Kiessling does not suggest a history of success in adopting the Soviet R-27 technology on which the Musudan was based. Most recently, two Musudans failed in October and all but one of the other tests in 2016 also failed.

But statements from the South Korean Joint Chiefs covered in detail by NKNews (in addition to statements by the KCNA), suggest a different beast: a so-called Pukguksong-2 that is related to the Pukkuksong-1 SLBM launched with apparent success in late August. The test thus not only contributes to the cold launch of such a system—in which the missile is launched from a sub by being ejected to the surface using high-pressure gas—but it also contributes to the march toward solid fuel rocketry and thus Pyongyang’s continued pursuit of a militarized version of the Unha satellite launch vehicle, in effect an ICBM.

Superficially, the political effects of the test initially looked positive. President Trump had little to say, but what he did say underscored Abe’s remarks and was no doubt welcomed in Tokyo (“I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.”). The fact that the missile was not of longer range appeared to obviate the “red line” problem created by the president’s intemperate “won’t happen” tweet. And even more importantly, the test activated the hidden lineaments of the alliance, including a phone call between National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, and a joint call by the US, Japan and Korea to convene a Security Council meeting. Given the pace of testing in 2016, THAAD didn’t need much defense. But Beijing is a little hard-pressed to carp about it as long as Kim Jong-un is on a steady diet of missile tests.

If that is the good news, the bad news is that the test is not just a diplomatic-political signal. It is rather another step in the development of the country’s missile capabilities, which a variety of analysts—including our favorite Jeff Lewis—note have continually been underestimated. The “no good options” problem also persists. It may be reassuring to hear Stephen Miller say on Fox News Sunday that "we are going to reinforce and strengthen our vital alliances in the Pacific region as part of our strategy to deter and prevent the increasing hostility that we've seen in recent years from the North Korean regime." But the alliances were already in good shape before the election, and it is not clear how the actions Miller outlines stop North Korea’s testing. That will take a very complicated diplomacy with China to affect. The president’s walking back from his one-China probe was a necessary condition for this to proceed but hardly sufficient. In short, with all of the Sturm and Drang of the first three weeks of the Trump presidency—and the recent positives on Asia policy--we are essentially back to where we should have been from the start of the new administration. 

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