This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The leaders of the G-7 have joined the condemnation of North Korea’s weekend missile launch, calling the test a “reckless” threat to peace, as experts said Pyongyang is verging on the ability to launch missiles that can strike the continental United States without “re-entry” issues.
North Korea on Saturday launched a long-range missile into the sea off Japan in apparent protest against U.S.-South Korean military drills. The missile was fired in a largely vertical direction, but showed a capacity to fly far further if launched toward a lower altitude, according to experts.
At the U.N. Security Council on Monday, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield appealed for a unanimous statement from the council condemning the missile launch and calling for Pyongyang to return, warning that the council otherwise risked “irrelevance.”
However, such a statement is likely to once again be blocked by North Korea’s closest allies: China and Russia, who, like the United States, hold veto power as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
Still, the launch was condemned by other governments around the world, including those of the United Kingdom and France – the remaining two members of the U.N. Security Council “permanent five” – and governments as diverse as Cambodia, Taiwan and Ukraine.
On Tuesday, leaders of the G-7 – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States – issued a joint statement condemning the launch, according to a statement from Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa, chair of the G-7 foreign ministers’ meeting at the Munich Security Conference.
“North Korea’s reckless behavior demands a unified response by the international community, including further significant measures taken by the UN Security Council,” Yoshimasa said in the statement.
In the United States, the launch has also led to calls from Republicans for U.S. President Joe Biden to take a more assertive approach.
‘Threat to broader region’
Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Radio Free Asia that Pyongyang’s most recent missile launch over the weekend “shows that it is a threat not only to Japan and South Korea, but to the broader region.”
McCaul called on U.S. President Joe Biden to “uphold our security agreements in the region” by doubling down on the provision of deterrence capabilities to countries like Japan and South Korea.
“The Biden Administration needs to act to ensure our allies and partners get the weapon systems they need quickly to deter the DPRK – any lack of resolve to respond to and deter against these aggressions only incentivizes our adversaries to pursue more provocative and dangerous actions to get their way,” he said, referring to North Korea.
The missile reportedly reached an altitude of about 5,770 kilometers (3,585 miles) and covered a distance of 990 kilometers (615 miles), according to North Korean state media. If fired at a regular trajectory, that means that the missile could reach a distance of about 13,000 kilometers (8,080 miles), which puts the continental United States within reach of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
But questions remain about both whether the North can fit its warheads on the missiles it is producing, and whether the missiles would even be able to stay intact during atmospheric re-entry.
Ian Williams, the deputy director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he was “convinced” the North’s intercontinental ballistic missiles could survive re-entry.
“We haven’t seen definitive evidence that a north Korean ICBM re-entry vehicle can survive, but from a practical standpoint, if you’re … responsible for protecting the United States for these kinds of threats, you know that person is assuming that it is that they can survive,” he told RFA, putting the odds at 95% that the North has the ability.
Ankit Panda, an expert on nuclear policy and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFA that he also believed the question had been answered for all intents and purposes.
“A country that has shown the level of technical competency that North Korea has with regard to its development of various missile systems will certainly be able to overcome the re-entry vehicle problem,” Panda said, adding that even ambiguity on the issue suited the Kim regime.
“For deterrence to work, all that North Korea really needs to do is to demonstrate that it has … a fairly high probability of mastering this technology,” he said. “Basically, they want the president of the United States to not want to risk a war with North Korea.”
In time, Panda said, the North would likely test fire an ICBM at a normal trajectory. He noted comments from North Korean diplomat Kim Yo Jong, who is Kim Jong Un’s sister, warning of more tests.
“Kim Yo Jong also has now alluded to the ‘Pacific firing range,’ indicating that the North Koreans might look to carry out additional ICBM launches, potentially on a longer range trajectory,” he said. “So it seems like the kind of thing that the North Koreans could do, especially to step up the pressure on the United States.”