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Guaranteeing Peace and Stability in East Asia; Anniversary of North Korea’s First ICBM Launch and How the Hwasong-14 Took the American Military Option Off the Table

July 04th - 2018

On July 4th 2017 North Korea made its first ever test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, which was designed to reliably deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland. The missile marked a turning point in North Korea’s program to develop a viable nuclear deterrent against the United States, with U.S. intelligence sources having almost unanimously predicted that the country would not have a viable means of delivering such strikes for years to come - leaving a wider window for military action and economic pressure to derail the deterrent program. With the United States having deployed nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula in January 1958, after its unilateral withdrawal from article 13 (d) of the Korean War armistice agreement which had prohibited the deployment of nuclear arms to the peninsula, and since having frequently threatened to use nuclear force against the East Asian state to negate its vast conventional warfare capabilities, North Korea had long sought strike capabilities to gain at least some form of parity. This came with a highly successful ballistic missile program from the mid 1980s and later, as threats escalated in the post Cold War era and Pyongyang lost the protection of the nuclear armed Soviet Union, a nuclear program which sought to miniaturise warheads to mount on ballistic missiles.

While North Korea had since the 1990s had the capability to strike targets in South Korea and Japan, the end goal has always been a deterrent capable of striking the United States - a goal which the successful testing of the Hwasong-14 marked the attainment of. While the costs of military intervention against North Korea were high for the United States, and were projected to entail the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions of South Korean, Japanese and Chinese citizens, they were still strongly advocated by many in the U.S. military and civilian leadership as necessary measures to prevent Pyongyang from gaining limited nuclear parity with the U.S. - and thus seriously undermining American freedom of action in the region. Senator Lindsey Graham for one stated that military action in Korea was more feasible as collateral damage would be confined to East Asia, while the U.S. mainland would not be in danger. “It would be terrible, but the war would be over there (in the Asia-Pacific,) it wouldn’t be here. It would be bad for the Korean peninsula. It would be bad for China. It would be bad for Japan. It would be bad for South Korea. It would be the end of North Korea, but what it would not do is hit America,” he had said when advocating an attack on North Korean weapons facilities.

Senator Graham was hardly alone in making such calls. Californian Congressman Duncan Hunter stated that as North Korea was “not a logical player” and had gained the capability to strike US mainland, the U.S. should launch a nuclear attack against the country - a preventative strike. Lt. Col. Ralph Peters made a similar argument in an opinion piece for the New York Post titled: The moral answer to North Korea’s threats, Take them out! in which he stated the imperative of prioritising the protection of the U.S. mainland and U.S. citizens above all else – even if that meant causing a devastating war in East Asia. He stated: “The fundamental reason our government exists is to protect our people and our territory. Everything else is a grace note. And the words we never should hear in regard to North Korea’s nuclear threats are, ‘We should’ve done something.’” H. R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, similarly said that it would be unacceptable for North Korea to gain an ICBM deterrent which could reach the U.S. mainland, even if U.S. military action which would guarantee a “human catastrophe” in South Korea was the price that needed to be paid. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to a similar conclusion.

Ultimately the Hwasong-14 was a game changer for the United States’ calculus regarding North Korea, and combined with the country’s powerful military and other strike platforms such as the submarine launched Pukkuksong, the Hwasong-12 ‘Guam Killer’ and the second ICBM, Hwasong-15, which had an even longer range and would be tested months later, were key to deterring an American attacks. While the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations had previously stated that North Korea was ‘begging for war,’ with the initiation of a major East Asian war appearing a considerably possibility, North Korea gaining the ability to strike the United States ensure that a war ‘over there’ in which America would be beyond reach was no longer an option. A second successful test of the Hwasong-14 would be conducted on July 28th, and the missile is reportedly being built in larger numbers alongside hydrogen warheads to further strengthen the country’s deterrent capabilities. With North Korea having declared the successful completion of its deterrence program in April 2018, and the country’s leadership having ordered the construction of more ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads, Pyongyang is now able to negotiate from a position of strength - with the United States very much restricted in its ability to make demands of the country now that the military option is no longer feasible. Ultimately the impact of this missile’s successful testing on East Asian security cannot be overstated, and did much to ensure not only that North Korea would continue to enjoy peace - but that its neighbours South Korea, Japan and China would all be spared a destructive war as well.

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