There’s very little you can take at face value when it comes to North Korea, a country that’s sentenced Trump to death for petty insults. So, the nation’s claims of a new, highly advanced missile, the Hwasong-15, are difficult to gauge in terms of the severity of threat. Yet while the Hwasong-15 shouldn’t inspire panic, it does spark concern, for experts have concluded that it is capable of striking Washington, D.C.. Here’s what we know:
- The Hwasong-15 missile has, in theory, a further range and a heavier payload: The Hwasong-15 allegedly doubles the range of North Korea’s last missile, the Hwasong-14, and supposedly can carry a heavier payload. We’re hedging here because we only have North Korea’s word, and second-hand information, for this, and North Korea has every reason to lie about how awesome its missile is. We use rocket science as a measure of difficulty for a reason. It may not be able to fly at the extreme ends of its range, for example, or a heavy payload might limit its range.
- If the Hwasong-15 is legit, it’s still more of a threat to Asia than America: Firing a missile into space, over an ocean, is a loud process that takes a long time. The absolute worst-case most unlikely scenario, that North Korea attempts to attack the U.S., is unlikely to end with America getting nuked. We’d have roughly thirty minutes to respond, and have spent decades and billions building missile defense systems such as THAAD. South Korea, Japan, India, Thailand and other nations don’t have that advantage, and wouldn’t have nearly as much time to react. In fact, to threaten South Korea, North Korea doesn’t even need a missile.
- The main point of concern is that North Korea seems to be advancing more quickly than anybody thought: The Hwasong-15 is simply much more advanced. It’s hardly the perfect nuclear missile, of course, but North Korea has substantially upgraded its capabilities. Whether it did so natively, as it claims, or whether it had help, is an open question. But in the end it doesn’t matter. They’ve got a missile. But they’re incredibly unlikely to use it.
- North Korea is unlikely to nuke anybody, however: First of all, the United States’ nuclear arsenal, to use a technical term, is f***ing terrifying. Launching a nuclear weapon would, at minimum, touch off an enormous shooting war that North Korea has no hope of winning and despite whoever “wins” such a war, the North Korean leadership would still lose. Kim Jong Un, who was educated in the West for much of his childhood, is likely fully aware of this. The goal here isn’t to nuke America; the goal is keeping America from, say, goading China into removing Kim, or to keep other military interests from paving the country. In other words, North Korea is playing geopolitical chicken and hoping everybody else, from China to South Korea to the U.S., swerves.
So what happens if nobody swerves? Well, that’s the million-dollar question, right there. Nobody knows for sure. There’s far more at play here than just the US; China is more or less keeping North Korea going, for example, and could easily take over. But that would make things even worse, geopolitically, since China invading a small Asian nation and taking it over is the nightmare of pretty much the entire Pacific Rim. But we may need to figure out, and fast, just where this particular road is going.