North Korea's drumbeat of missile tests remains steady. After days of anticipation, the country appears to have test-fired a missile from Jagang province shortly before midnight July 28. Leaks to the media the week prior indicated that South Korean and U.S. officials were tracking preparations for a new test. Speculation swirled that it would be timed around July 27, the 64th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War. The U.S. Department of Defense confirmed that it had detected a ballistic missile launch but is still assessing the situation. The Japanese government said the missile flew for around 45 minutes before landing in the Sea of Japan, inside Japan's exclusive economic zone. In response, South Korean President Moon Jae In and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe convened emergency meetings.
Statements and assessments about the test will begin to emerge from the United States, South Korea and Japan in the hours to come. It will be important to monitor early reports evaluating the launch's success, as well as details about the device's range and apogee. But regardless, the new test will lend credence to the United States' calls to take a tougher approach to North Korea.
The specific technical requirements of North Korea's weapons program largely dictate the pace and aim of its missile tests. North Korea has been trying to develop a viable heat shield and re-entry vehicle to enable its missile system to deliver a warhead more reliably on target. The latest launch is the country's first since its landmark July 4 test of an apparent Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which, according to high-end estimates of its range, would be able to hit areas of the western United States.
In the wake of that test, the United Nations imposed sanctions on North Korea, spurring backroom negotiations over how to handle Pyongyang's weapons program. Talks between the United States and China are still in progress three weeks after the U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting. Separately, China is negotiating over the sanctions with Russia as well, since Moscow has signaled it would act as a spoiler in the U.S. confrontation with North Korea. On July 6, the Russian government blocked a U.N. statement calling for stronger measures against Pyongyang, doubtful that North Korea had tested a true ICBM in the first place.
The latest missile test comes not long after Seoul suggested holding military talks with Pyongyang. The move marked a nascent attempt by the Moon administration to take a softer approach to North Korea, but it has put South Korea at odds with Japan, which advocates a firmer method. The United States, meanwhile, has pushed for a concerted effort by Washington, Seoul and Tokyo to pressure North Korea — along with China and Russia.
Now that North Korea has launched yet another missile test, it has vindicated the United States' calls for an approach characterized more by pressure than by dialogue. An unconfirmed report from the week of July 24 indicated that the Pentagon believes North Korea is on track to obtain a nuclear-capable ICBM program by 2018 — two years ahead of previous estimates. And a demonstrable ability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear weapon is a danger that Washington simply cannot accept.
The differing interests of the United States and North Korea are quickly reaching the point of being irreconcilable. Without much room for compromise, Washington is relying on Beijing and Moscow to further pressure Pyongyang into cooperation. The next step for the United States, then, may be moving forward with additional secondary sanctions against entities — namely in China — that do business with North Korea.