People watch a television broadcast reporting the North Korean missile launch from the Seoul Railway Station in South Korea, on July 4. The latest launch drew strong criticism from the U.S. and came ahead of a summit of leaders from the G20 countries in Germany later this week.
(CHUNG SUNG-JUN/Getty Images)
At 9:10 a.m. local time on July 4, North Korea launched a new ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, from the Panghyon Airport in North Pyongan Province. The Hwasong-14 was tested at a lofted, or steep, trajectory. This flight path maximizes the altitude of the missile and reduces its distance traveled in order to avoid overflying neighboring regions and countries such as Japan. Pyongyang further claimed that the Hwasong-14 missile was an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile — a statement that is thus far backed up by the available flight data.
The Hwasong-14 achieved the farthest distance traveled by a North Korean missile in tests so far. The previous longest shot occurred on May 14 with a test of the Hwasong-12. That missile reached an apogee of 2,111.5 kilometers (1312 miles) and a range of around 700 kilometers (435 miles) with a flight time of 30 minutes.
The July 4 Hwasong-14 flight characteristics show a clear improvement. According to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, the missile landed more than 930 kilometers (578 miles) away from its launch point. According to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, the observed apogee of the missile greatly exceeded 2,500 kilometers. Finally, the United States Pacific Command reported that the flight time of the missile was 37 minutes. Given these flight details, the North Korean missile should technically be able to reach a distance of more than 6,000 kilometers (3,278 miles) on a standard trajectory.
Given that 5,500 kilometers is the minimum range for a missile to be classified as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the North Korean claim that the latest test was an ICBM is substantiated by the missile's flight data. The assumed range of the missile is about 6,000 to 6,500 kilometers, which would enable Pyongyang to reach all of Alaska, but would not yet give North Korea the ability to strike the Hawaiian Islands or the continental United States.
The Hwasong-14 is a liquid-fueled missile and a further improvement on the Hwasong-13 design. Before the Hwasong-14's first flight test on July 4, it was estimated to have a range between 8,000 and 10,000 kilometers. Imagery released by North Korea from the launch shows that the Hwasong-14 was carried to its launch pad by a transporter erector truck — a modified Chinese WS51200 logging truck — but that the vehicle itself did not launch the missile. This is an important detail to note because it highlights the rudimentary mobility and flexibility of the missile as it currently stands.
Leading up to the most recent missile test, North Korea demonstrated significant progress in developing its ballistic missile arsenal. Pyongyang achieved progressively greater ranges with an array of missiles, developed increasingly powerful liquid- and solid-fueled missile engines, and made distinct progress in reentry vehicle technology, as demonstrated by the survival of the nose cones of test missiles even when reentering the atmosphere from high apogees.
The apparent successful test of a North Korean ICBM will further add to rising tensions between Pyongyang's immediate neighbors and the United States. In January 2017, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump said that North Korea would not be able to develop a weapon capable of reaching parts of the United States. With the White House already signaling its determination to prevent further North Korean progress, the July 4 Hwasong-14 missile test tilts an increasingly precarious regional balance.