SEOUL, South Korea — In the dead of night, North Korea test-launches its most powerful missile yet. Six minutes later, rival South Korea unleashes a barrage meant to show it will hit back — hard — if war ever comes.
The nightmare scenario, made reality again Wednesday, is terrifying and increasingly routine. Yet there are signs it might also signal something surprising: a calculated bit of restraint as Pyongyang nears a unique potential declaration, possibly in leader Kim Jong Un’s annual New Year’s Day speech. The North, some speculate, may announce that since it now considers itself a nuclear power equal to the United States, it can put more effort into Kim’s other priority of trying to fix one of the world’s worst economies.
In short, could the end be near for North Korea’s years of headlong, provocative nuclear development?
Wednesday’s test of what the North called a new ICBM capable of hitting the entire U.S. mainland was, like all the others, calibrated to both convey defiance and boast of a dramatically improving military capability to Washington. But Pyongyang also did very specific things that kept the launch well back of the point of shoving U.S. President Donald Trump toward any military attack:
— It did not shoot its missile over Japan, which it has done twice in recent months.
— It did not fire its missile, as it previously suggested it might, into the waters around the U.S. military hub of Guam in the Pacific.
— It did not conduct potentially the most worrying next step short of war: An atmospheric test of a nuclear weapon flying onboard a long-range missile over the Pacific.
Small victories, maybe. Certainly no guarantee of what the future holds for a country that prides itself on keeping outsiders guessing and on pushing its weapons development to the brink. But the glimmer of restraint suggests the North may see itself nearing the point where it can claim military victory, however far that might be from the truth, and turn more toward other matters by next year, the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding.
A strong indication backing this analysis is right there in Pyongyang’s official statement on the launch, which was read on a special TV broadcast hours after the missile lifted off.
After watching the Hwasong-15 missile blast into the pre-dawn darkness, “Kim Jong Un declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power.”
While everything North Korea says in its propaganda must be viewed with extreme skepticism, the country does have a habit of laying out goals and meeting them, or at least claiming it has met them.
North Korea’s test could indeed indicate that the country will soon consider its nuclear program “done” and focus on its sluggish economy, said Vipin Narang, a nuclear strategy expert at MIT. “But there are many things that can intervene to accelerate or decelerate it,” he says.
“The pessimist in me says they are trying to get the range (of the ICBM settled) first, and then, if we still doubt” their abilities, could conduct a full-blown operational atmospheric test of a live nuclear warhead atop a ballistic missile, Narang said. “But the optimist in me says that’s so risky it would take a major provocation or insult to get them to try it.”
Trying to predict what North Korea will actually do next — a favorite if frustrating game of analysts and government officials for decades — is notoriously futile. And Pyongyang may simply continue its torrid testing pace of its weapons, which, despite internal and global hype, are not yet a match for those of any of the established nuclear powers.
It’s important to realize, Narang says, that the North’s program is truly developmental, which means “it needs to hit certain milestones. Range, reliability and re-entry are what they are probably focused on most intently at the moment.”
Many observers expect at least one more big test aimed at showing the full range of the ICBM by sending it flying over Japan and deep into the Pacific. And the North has yet to perfect its submarine-launched missiles.
A bigger worry would be if the North, trying to quiet doubts about whether it has a warhead small enough to fit on a long-range missile, attempted a risky thermonuclear atmospheric missile explosion. North Korea’s foreign minister in September suggested his country may test a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean.
Amid the speculation over what comes next, the North chose words Wednesday that suggested it was aiming to reassure, not to panic.
The new ICBM, it said, “meets the goal of the completion of the rocket weaponry system development set by” the North. In a reference to Kim Jong Un’s double-pronged goal of boosting both the nuclear program and the economy, it shows the North Korean people’s ability to uphold “simultaneous development of the two fronts with loyalty” so that they can stand up to the U.S. “nuclear blackmail policy” while enjoying a “peaceful life.”