In recent days it has been reported in the Chosun Ilbo (one of South Korea’s most widely read daily newspapers) that if North Korea launches an ICBM into the “Pacific region,” the United States will “immediately” intercept it. This report was quickly responded to by Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, who warned of a “swift and overwhelming” military response to any action taken by the United States. It is unclear if the reporting in the Chosun Ilbo was a misquote or even a mistranslation. Such a comment has never been made in the past by a senior American official.
The reporting in the Chosun Ilbo was based on an unconfirmed comment allegedly made by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander to the Korean Consul-General in Honolulu and is based on unnamed military sources. The U.S. Department of Defense has not commented on this reporting.
Of course, the recent rhetoric leads one to ask, why would the North Koreans launch an ICBM into the “Pacific region?” The North Koreans have launched several ICBM platforms on an extremely high trajectory (almost straight up) since 2017. If these angles were to be laid out to the actual trajectory of a missile launched at the United States, the Hwasong-14 likely has the range to hit the west coast of the U.S., while the Hwasong-15 has the range to hit all of the continental U.S. Though the Hwasong-17 has reportedly been tested recently, its reliability remains in question.
So why break from this testing modus operandi that has been in effect since at least 2017? Because the debate within the United States and its allies in East Asia continues about whether or not a North Korean ICBM “can really hit” the United States simply based on the extreme trajectory the missiles have been tested on, and perhaps as importantly, “can it really” re-enter the earth’s atmosphere successfully with a live nuclear payload.
There is only one way to definitively prove this. To launch an ICBM carrying a nuclear payload into an empty spot somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. To date, the North Korean leadership has not felt the need to definitively prove this capability to the world. The ongoing debate, however, may have compelled Kim Jong-un to feel he now must show the world that he can launch a nuclear weapon at the United States if the need arises. In addition, if North Korea were to conduct such a test, it would be a “double-whammy,” detonating yet another nuclear weapon while also testing an ICBM at its “full-range” capability.
If the North Koreans were to conduct such a test and fire an ICBM with a nuclear payload into some empty spot in the Pacific Ocean, what would the risk be to American sovereign territory? Well, the answer is, no risk unless the ICBM was to be on a trajectory that would take it over Guam. Thus, though there have been no comments on the statement allegedly made by the Indo-Pacific Commander, if he did in fact make the remarks he may have been referring to a circumstance where the North Korean missile was actually overflying Guam in the Marianas Islands.
While North Korea’s missile launches can be considered provocative they have not been a threat to any nations in the Asia-Pacifric thus far. One wonders if the United States would even want to shoot at a missile that did not pose a threat, and that calls the reported remarks (if they were made) into question.
If the United States did in fact make the decision to shoot down an ICBM that was overflying U.S. sovereign territory, until very recent times, this was something that was seen as an unlikely reaction – because ballistic missile defense capabilities may not have been able to successfully achieve the mission.
There is a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) unit stationed on Guam and the system is well known for being able to bring down MRBM or IRBM systems – but has not been definitively or successfully tested on intercepting ICBM systems and thus would likely be ineffective against these systems if one or more of them was overflying America’s territory in the Marianas Islands.
Fortunately for the United States, on its Aegis-equipped ships, it has the SM-3 Block II-A system. This system successfully brought down (intercepted) an ICBM target on November 16, 2020, and thus could be deployed to wherever it needed to go if the United States made the decision to intercept a North Korean ICBM.
While it appears unlikely the United States would shoot down a North Korean ICBM headed toward an empty spot in the ocean – unless it looked to be on a trajectory that took it over American territory (and even then it is unclear what Washington’s reaction would be because there have been no official statements addressing this recently) – it is clear that the Americans (certainly in theory) have the capability to shoot down the ICBM if called into action while the North Koreans (certainly in theory) have the capability to put a nuclear warhead on a missile and launch it into an empty area in the Pacific Ocean.
Since the North Koreans have never fired an ICBM with a nuclear payload into the ocean, and the Americans have never intercepted a North Korean ballistic missile, we are looking at unprecedented events if either one of these things were to occur.
What are the events that are likely to occur if North Korea does in fact launch an ICBM with a nuclear payload? We can expect sanctions with real teeth will occur. There will also likely be other initiatives put in place to put pressure on and contain North Korea’s WMD programs.
If the United States were to decide to intercept a North Korean missile (and if the attempt was to be successful), tensions would of course increase, but Pyongyang would be forced to think twice before launching further “full-range” tests. If the attempts to bring down the North Korean missile were to prove unsuccessful, a call for further funding and development of BMD is likely to go out.
This would be legitimate because the threat from North Korea continues to grow in numbers and modernity.
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Dr. Bruce E. Bechtol, Jr. (Ph.D. Union Institute), is an award-winning professor of political science at Angelo State University and a retired Marine. The author of five books on North Korea, he is also the current President of the International Council on Korean Studies. He specializes in North Korean military and counter-proliferation issues. Bechtol is a 19FortyFive contributing editor.