As flight parameters of North Korea's July 28 Hwasong-14 missile test emerged over the weekend, it became increasingly apparent that the North Koreans are further ahead in their development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) than even was apparent from their first Hwasong-14 test on July 4. With an apogee of 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles), a flight time of 47 minutes and a splash distance of almost 1,000 kilometers, the Hwasong-14's theoretical range extended beyond 10,000 kilometers — placing key U.S. cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago within the reach.
It is not yet known whether the North Koreans tested the Hwasong-14 with a heavy dummy warhead, which would decrease range, or maximized the thrust of the missile's engines, which would extend the range. But it is clear that North Korea is on the cusp of a major breakthrough in missile technology that will change the Korean Peninsula paradigm by placing the continental United States in the line of fire.
Beyond the Hwasong-14's technical capabilities, the North Koreans also appear to be testing ways to improve the missile's launch sequence in an operational setting. North Korea's drive in this direction likely is underlined by media reports that the United States had observed the missile on its launch pad near Pukchang Airport for about 70 minutes before it was launched. A 70-minute observation window would give the United States and South Korea sufficient time to target the North Korean launch pad with missile strikes.
To that end, and unlike its daytime launch on July 4, North Korea's latest Hwasong-14 test took place at 11:41 p.m. local time. By launching at night — darkness provides some cover from certain kinds of optical satellites, though not synthetic radar ones — using a smaller launch pad, and decreasing the distance between hangar and launch area, North Korea could minimize the warning time an operational launch would give the United States and its regional allies and would limit their ability to prevent a launch.
That is not to say that the United States and its allies did not detect the July 28 test launch well before the missile was observed on the pad. The Diplomat magazine reported July 31 that launch pad preparations and VIP arrangements at the launch site in Mupyong-ni forewarned the United States, with high confidence, that a launch was likely about 4 hours before it occurred. Nevertheless, North Korea can continue to improve its ability to launch an ICBM with little warning, especially when one takes into account that during an actual attack, there would be no VIPs at the launch site and that North Korea would likely launch its Hwasong-14 missiles directly from their transporter erector launchers.
North Korea's latest Hwasong-14 test further highlights both the rapid and wide-scope development of its missile program. Not only is North Korea investing considerable efforts into developing and improving the technical capabilities of a variety of missile types, but Pyongyang also appears to be focusing on perfecting methods to deploy and launch missiles to maximize their deterrent and operational effectiveness.