North Korean state media announced – and U.S. officials have confirmed – that North Korea tested a new ballistic missile over the weekend. The missile, either medium- or intermediate- range, does not directly threaten the U.S., but may endanger American allies and U.S. military assets in the region. North Korea’s continued missile testing underscores the ineffectiveness of current U.S. policy towards Pyongyang and highlights why the Trump Administration should urgently engage the North in diplomatic negotiations.
North Korea’s newest missile, the Pukguksong-2, was launched on Sunday morning local time (Saturday evening on the U.S. east coast) and traveled approximately 500 km before landing in the Sea of Japan. It has been reported that the missile reached a maximum altitude of 550 km, suggesting that it was launched in a lofted trajectory to avoid entering other countries’ territory. David Wright, co-director and senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, calculated that if this is true, the normal range of the missile would be around 1,200 km. At this range, the Pukguksong-2 would be considered a medium-range ballistic missile.
The Pukguksong-2 is the land-based version of the submarine-launched KN-11 that was first tested in April 2016. Both missiles use solid instead of liquid fuel, representing a major advancement in North Korean missile technology. Solid-fuel missiles can be launched more quickly and secretively than their liquid-fuel counterparts because they do not require as much time and infrastructure for fueling. The Pukguksong-2 provides North Korea with an additional military option that will be much harder to track because it can be transported on a mobile launcher without the accompanying infrastructure needed for a liquid fueled launch.
This is the first missile test that North Korea has launched since President Trump was inaugurated, and may have been intended as much to gauge his reaction as it was to test new technology. Thus far, President Trump has responded with restraint, pledging American support to Japan in a brief statement. The President’s reaction is a stark contrast to his decision to “put Iran on notice” for a missile test earlier this month, or his tweet that a North Korean missile test “won’t happen” after leader Kim Jong-un announced Pyongyang’s intent to test in a New Year’s Day speech.
Going forward, President Trump should do more than reiterate American support for our allies in the region. He should engage North Korea in diplomatic negotiations with no preconditions, something that has not been attempted since the six party talks broke down early in the Bush administration. This policy has long been supported by experts in the defense and arms control communities.
According to Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, “today a war would be no less than catastrophic, possibly destroying the societies of both Koreas as well as causing large casualties in the U.S. military. It is imperative that we employ creative diplomacy to avert such a catastrophe.” Similarly, former Senator Sam Nunn and retired U.S. Navy Admiral and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen suggest, “new and genuine incentives should be offered for North Korea to participate in substantive talks … A new diplomatic approach could potentially freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and lay the groundwork for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
Negotiating with North Korea will not immediately achieve the ultimate objective of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, but talks are much more likely to freeze or slow North Korea’s nuclear program than continued sanctions without dialogue. In many areas of both domestic and foreign policy, President Trump’s policies have been the opposite of his predecessors. If he adopts a policy of negotiation with North Korea, he may get results that have evaded the U.S. thus far.
Bernadette Stadler is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.