North Korea's missile can hit Alaska: How important is this new test and how it might affect world security

The world (and Donald Trump) was shocked on Tuesday with news of an inter-continental ballistic missile being launched by North Korea. The "landmark" test of a Hwasong-14 missile was overseen by leader Kim Jong-Un, according to a special announcement made on the state-owned Korean Central News Agency.

The announcement further quoted the baby-faced dictator as saying that "American bastards would be not very happy with this gift sent on the 4 July anniversary". Fourth of July is celebrated in the United States' as Independence Day.

The missile appears to be the country's longest-range ballistic missile yet, with experts suggesting it could reach Alaska. The exact range is unconfirmed while the country itself has claimed that the missile flew 933 kilometres, a Russian defence ministry statement pegged the distance travelled at 510 kilometres.

The distance travelled should not be confused with the actual range of the missile which varies with the angle of launch. The Hwasong was launched at a very steep angle which meant it didn't travel very far. If launched at the appropriate angle, its range is estimated to be as much as 6,700 km by some experts. Reuters quotes experts as giving the missile of range as much as 8,000 km. This would make it an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) as claimed by North Korea as it passes the 5,500 km threshold required for an ICBM.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

The US Pacific Command confirmed the test and said it was a land-based, intermediate range missile that flew for 37 minutes, adding the launch did not pose a threat to North America. This was backed up by South Korean President Moon Jae-in who said that they thought it more likely to be an intermediate-range version. An intermediate range missile (IRM) has a range between 3,000 to 5,500 km.

The difference between an ICBM and an IRM is important as the distance between North Korea and Alaska is just over 5,500 km. The distance to mainland US is much more.

It, thus, is a question of who you choose to believe. According to the numbers given by the North Korea media, the missile is capable of hitting mainland US. According to US-based missile expert John Schilling, the launch was both earlier and "far more successful than expected". Schilling is a contributor to the Washington-based North Korea monitoring project, 38 North. He further said that it would now probably only be a year or two before a North Korean ICBM achieved "minimal operational capability".

This minimal operational capability requires a small warhead to fit a long-range missile, technology to protect against intense heat as it re-enters the atmosphere, separate the warhead and guide it to its target.

Believing North Korea is fraught with risk, as it actually went so far as to say its new missile could hit any location on the planet. But the fact that North Korea is able to launch a stable missile which could potentially hit the US is cause for concern. Its earlier efforts at launching missiles have not been very successful. However, a stable missile launch might force the US to act and with the current president in place, the decisions might not be the best ones.

On the other hand however, North Korea has always had the potential to harm US interests. The US maintains a strategic interest in the region as both South Korea and Japan are its allies. US-South Korea relations are governed by the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Korea and US-Japan relations are covered under the 1952 Mutual Security Assistance Pact. Moreover, US keeps its armed forces in the region with 28,000 US military personnel based in South Korea and another 40,000 in Japan. The US is also obliged to defend Japan if North Korea attacks it.

In such case, the bigger problem might be North Korea developing nuclear-capable missiles which it can reliably launch. The range might not matter if it decides to attack either South Korea or Japan as in that scenario, US gets dragged into the conflict. This will set off a domino effect as China will get involved too. Such a scenario will depressingly take the shades of a World War. This is why it becomes extremely important for the US to work with China to rein in North Korea and to curb its nuclear appetite. Otherwise the effects will be far-reaching and perilous to the extreme.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Jul 05, 2017 14:18 PM

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