North Korea tests longest-range missile yet

Tensions on the Korean peninsula shot up over the weekend as U.S. and South Korean intelligence have confirmed that North Korea tested a long-range ICBM.  The missile flew higher and farther than any other North Korean test, showing that the window of opportunity to stop Kim Jong-un from developing the missile technology to strike anywhere in the U.S. is closing.

NBC News:

Although analysts were scrambling Wednesday to learn what they could about the North Korean launch, Pyongyang said it had tested a new type of missile, named the Hwasong-15.

Dictator Kim's secretive state claimed it was carrying a "super-large heavy warhead" that was capable of striking the entire U.S. mainland. But analysts say that based on the current evidence it's hard to prove or debunk the North's claim that it can now hit faraway American targets such as New York or Washington, D.C.

The North Koreans have now test-fired missiles 18 times since President Donald Trump took office in January. Tuesday's launch was the first in more than two months.

Western officials agreed it appeared to be an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, which flew further than any other demonstrated by the North.

It was fired on what is called a "lofted" trajectory, meaning it was aimed at a steep angle and traveled very high but landed relatively close to its launch site.

Reaching an altitude of around 2,800 miles above the Earth's surface, according to South Korea, it crashed down in the Sea of Japan around 600 miles away from where it was fired.

"It went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they've taken," Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters at the White House.

Some experts believe that if North Korea aimed the rocket at a lower angle, as it would in an attack scenario, this range could be stretched to some 8,100 miles – theoretically putting the entire East Coast in range.

"If we extrapolate this test we think it would give North Korea the capability to reach Washington, D.C.," according to John Nilsson-Wright, a senior research fellow at London's Chatham House think tank.

However, to build a weapon capable of hitting the U.S. a long-range rocket is just one piece of the puzzle.

North Korea would also need to develop a reentry vehicle robust enough to protect the warhead from the intense heat produced by traveling through the Earth's atmosphere at speed. It also needs to miniaturize a nuclear weapon small and light enough to fit on the missile without reducing its range.

Boasts aside, it hasn't publicly demonstrated either of these.

"We still don't know the ability of North Korea to put a warhead on a long-range missile and fire it with accuracy," Nilsson-Wright said.

Unfortunately, when talking about nuclear warheads, "accuracy" isn't necessary – especially if the target is as densely populated as the U.S. east coast.

But the question is no longer if North Korea has a missile capable of hitting the U.S.  It does.  The question of whether they've been able to marry a warhead to that missile is not exactly irrelevant, but it plays into the strategic thinking of South Korea and the U.S.  Do we wait until Kim proves he has the warhead technology to hit the United States mainland?  Donald Trump has made it pretty clear that we are not willing to wait that long before attempting to make sure it doesn't happen.

The response from the president was cryptic:

Donald Trump has vowed to "take care of it" after North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile that it said was capable of striking any target in the United States. 

The US President was briefed while the missile was in the air, the White House said, and later declared: “It is a situation that we will handle."

I think we will get little warning from the administration about a strike on North Korea.  But with North Korea on full alert after the missile test, I doubt that it will happen in the next few days. 

But Trump's choice at this point is clear: accept the fact of a nuclear North Korea with weapons capable of striking U.S. cities – the end result of any "talks" with Kim's regime – or take them out.  Given the president's past rhetoric, he has left no doubt about his future actions.

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