Last year, North Korea’s marked increase in missile launches was widely interpreted as a bid to sharpen its capability to target South Korea with tactical nuclear weapons. Aided in part by Washington’s preoccupation with the Ukraine war and Taiwan Strait tensions, this surge in testing has persisted. This has been further exacerbated by China and Russia’s veto of United Nations sanctions, effectively giving North Korea free rein to test any weapons and launch any missiles it desired. One year later, we are witnessing a seismic shift in North Korea’s enhanced ability to threaten major American cities, from Los Angeles to New York, covering both coasts and from south to north. This development, alarming yet frequently underplayed, brings forth complex and troubling questions. Has Washington consistently underestimated North Korea’s missile prowess and its limited policy resource allocation, thereby endangering American security? Crucially, due to inadequate policy engagement, Washington might eventually find itself forced to consider a strong preemptive kinetic response. Such an action could not only devastate North Korea but also plunge the region into chaos.
North Korea’s Dramatic Leap in Its ICBM Capabilities
In the intricate landscape of twenty-first-century geopolitics, the allure of focusing on palpable threats often overshadows the steady drumbeats of persistent challenges. North Korea, with its familiar pattern of bluster followed by conciliatory gestures, epitomizes this latter category. Yet, a myopic view of Kim Jong-un’s Hermit Kingdom, especially in light of its burgeoning nuclear and missile prowess, risks destabilizing not just the immediate region but the very architecture of the global order. As North Korea’s nuclear arsenal grows and diversifies, the threat it poses to its neighbors and, more alarmingly, to the U.S. mainland, becomes more tangible with each missile test. For a long time, this threat was acknowledged but largely seen as a future concern. Now, Washington’s policy neglect may have brought us past the tipping point, as North Korea has the kinetic capability to target the entire United States.
On July 12, in response to the U.S. reconnaissance flight over North Korea’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), Pyongyang launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Its landing in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) was anticipated, but the trajectory raised concerns among military experts.
Startling details surfaced. Both South Korean and Japanese militaries confirmed the missile’s origin from the North Korean capital. Despite a high launch angle, it reached 3,738 miles (6,000 km) in altitude and traveled approximately 621 miles (1,000 km) before descending. The missile remained airborne for seventy-four minutes, surpassing the earlier record of seventy-one minutes set by a launch earlier in the year. Analyzing these specifics, Japan’s Ministry of Defense suggests that, depending on the warhead’s weight, its maximum range could exceed 9,320 miles (15,000 km) when launched at a typical ICBM trajectory—encompassing the whole U.S. mainland. North Korea’s audacious test follows three other ICBM tests conducted earlier this year and as many as seven last year. Each test demonstrated progressively enhanced capabilities. The latest ICBM is designed to carry up to four warheads per missile. Many experts also posit that the missile utilized a more advanced solid fuel, which provides both increased mobility and reduced detectability compared to its liquid-fueled counterparts.
The implications are clear: the ground-based interceptors that the United States has stationed in Alaska and California may no longer provide the robust defense they once did. If North Korea were to launch a dozen of these missiles, it could potentially overwhelm the United States’ defense systems. It’s tempting to downplay North Korea’s achievements, emphasizing that there’s still a time gap between technical achievements and actual deployment. This sentiment is compounded by Washington’s desire to maintain focus on Ukraine without distractions. Yet, informed circles are increasingly ringing cautionary bells. Dennis Wilder, a former CIA deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific, noted, “This is a neglected problem in East Asia. I believe it holds more potential for a crisis than even the Taiwan Strait situation.”
Then, on September 8, North Korea launched a new tactical nuclear attack submarine in a ceremony attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, calling it “the beginning of a new chapter” for its military. Some American observers were quick to point to the old Soviet-designed Romeo-class submarine and belittle it as “Frankensub.” However, there might still be a tendency to underestimate Kim’s unwavering ambition to develop a nuclear-armed navy as a countermeasure against the United States and its Asian allies. North Korea is actively enhancing its nuclear capabilities, consistent with its public declarations. “When it comes to weapons technology development, North Korea is growing increasingly confident,” retired Lieutenant General In-Bum Chun shared with me during a research interview. He emphasized that, given North Korea’s technical confidence in nuclear weaponry, the country is now rapidly diversifying its arsenal—from ICBMs to miniaturized nuclear devices and nuclear submarines. In a further show of defiance, North Korea now publicly threatens to deploy nuclear weapons during U.S.-South Korea military drills. Reacting to North Korea’s unwavering advancement in its nuclear weapons program, South Korea’s Yoon Suk-yeol administration has highlighted North Korea’s augmented nuclear and missile capabilities as the “most pressing challenge” facing the region.
Washington’s Potential Response to North Korea’s Nuclear Capabilities
Over the years, U.S. strategy toward North Korea has oscillated between diplomacy and stern warnings, predominantly being reactive. The strategy largely hinged on China, North Korea’s main ally and trade partner, to rein in its unpredictable neighbor. However, Beijing has generally prioritized peninsular stability over denuclearization despite often disapproving of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. This stance has empowered North Korea. Now, with missiles that can technically reach the United States, Washington might feel pressured to act. But decisions to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear abilities could cause immense collateral damage and regional upheaval. This is not a hypothetical situation.
In 1994, Washington contemplated a surgical strike on North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site. This was avoided through former President Jimmy Carter’s personal intervention with Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang. In 2017, President Donald Trump publicly threatened North Korea with total destruction. Amid escalating tensions with Kim Jong-un, Trump even mused about using a nuclear weapon against North Korea and deflecting blame. South Korea, directly in North Korea’s line of sight, would suffer most in a U.S.-North Korea conflict. Then-South Korean president Moon Jae-in, clearly concerned, remarked, “War must not break out again on the Korean Peninsula” during a dinner in Seoul he hosted for Trump.
An unprovoked strike on North Korea would have cascading consequences. Besides the immediate humanitarian catastrophe, the geopolitical fallout would be vast. It could trigger a full-fledged conflict on the Korean Peninsula, roping in South Korea, China, Japan, and perhaps Russia. This turmoil could unpredictably reshape regional dynamics, possibly diminishing U.S. influence in Asia and complicating its strategic approach toward China. The move might also fray global alliances, with allies potentially reluctant to back a preemptive attack.
The Perils of Neglect
The above scenario underscores the perils of neglect. Over the years, the global community has hoped to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions through sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and sporadic engagement. Although these measures provided short-lived respite, they didn’t ensure a long-term solution.
Ignoring North Korea might lead not only to a nuclear-armed rogue state but also to an inherently unstable Northeast Asia. It’s time to rethink strategy by emphasizing engagement, understanding the Kim regime’s entrenched insecurities, and formulating a plan ensuring enduring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. The challenges ahead are immense, but the stakes are too high for passive or complacent behavior.
While some analysts argue the window for North Korean diplomacy is swiftly narrowing, a stronger case exists for redefining our “diplomatic engagement” aim. Not as unrealistic denuclearization, but as a more feasible “risk management,” similar to the Biden administration’s recent “de-risking“ approach to China. This strategy pivot led to high-level dialogues aiming to avoid miscalculations and potential conflict.
This engagement shift would not just present a more practical approach to Pyongyang but would also transition away from the increasingly lofty goal of denuclearization without matching it with commensurate policy investment. The Camp David summit by the United States, South Korea, and Japan, held in August 2023, calls for “complete denuclearization of North Korea.” Yet, without outreach for engagement, dialogue, and negotiation with North Korea, such a resolution will not materialize. Regrettably, at present, Washington seems hesitant to adopt this perspective. For the sake of U.S. security and global stability, it’s imperative for the United States to present a persuasive argument.
Seong-Hyon Lee, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations and a Visiting Scholar at the Harvard University Asia Center.