On Saturday, North Koreans will celebrate the anniversary of their country’s founding, and experts believe they may mark the holiday with a full-range test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
South Korean media reports that a North Korean ICBM has been spotted on the move, and South Korea’s Prime Minister said that “some believe North Korea may launch another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on the 9th; this time at an ordinary angle,” according to CNN.
Meanwhile, North Korea said that the US can expect more “gift packages” in the form of further missile testing. With only two successful tests on record, North Korea’s current ICBM is in need of further testing.
But North Korea firing a ballistic missile thousands of miles across the globe could have disastrous consequences if not executed properly.
Just as North Korea overflew Japan with a missile in late August, geography dictates that Pyongyang will likely again have to overfly Japan if not a few other nations in the Pacific to do a full range test of its ICBM.
The US detecting an unannounced missile heading towards the mainland from North Korea could cause a nuclear retaliation that would leave Pyongyang little more than a pile of dust, so Pyongyang would likely try to aim the missile elsewhere.
Possible trajectories may send the missile south towards the pole or into the Pacific south of the US. Even unarmed, the missile’s reentry vehicle would pose a huge threat to maritime life and traffic as it blazes through the atmosphere at many times the speed of sound.
But there’s no guarantee the launch would be unarmed. In 1966, as the US and outside world doubted China could build a functional nuclear-armed ICBM without outside help, Beijing launched a missile at full range with a nuclear payload.
Today, North Korea faces similar scrutiny with many doubting its nuclear and missile technology. Media releases from North Korea often seem intent on proving doubters wrong, and its tests sometimes seem designed to demonstrate previously unattributed capabilities.
Detonating a nuclear device in international waters, even without killing someone, would be an ecological disaster with a lasting effect on the environment. Such a move would also draw massive condemnation by the international community.
But it would demonstrate beyond a doubt that North Korea’s long-range nuclear threat is real, and it would stress the US-South Korean alliance never before seen, which fits right into Pyongyang’s playbook.