Fallout from missile test
North Korea’s recent test-firing of an intermediate-range ballistic missile called “Bukguksong-2” dramatically raises tension on the Korean Peninsula. The solid fuel-based missile flew 500 kilometers (311 miles) into the East Sea. U.S. President Donald Trump has fueled the tension with hawkish remarks, coupled with the possibility of a preventive strike at North Korea.
Trump vowed to “deal with” North Korea very strongly, calling it “a big, big problem” without actually citing the ballistic missile it fired over the weekend. That means he perceives the North’s nuclear weapons as one of the biggest security threats to the U.S., as evidenced by his repeated pledges to sternly cope with it. Given his hard-line positions — as clearly seen in an executive order for a travel ban on some Muslim-majority countries and the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — no one knows how he will react to the North’s unceasing provocations. Even China, North Korea’s ally, joined the chorus to denounce the missile launch, which could encourage Trump to take an uncompromising path.
Another concern is that North Korea has begun to use solid fuel and mobile platforms to fire missiles. When it used liquid fuel, our military intelligence could detect their launches relatively easily as it takes two to three hours to inject the fuel. But solid fuel needs only 15 minutes to be prepared. Mobile launch pads make it even harder for our intelligence authorities to detect attacks being planned.
We also worry about the speed of the missile. The National Intelligence Service and Joint Chiefs of Staff estimate the missile could fly at a speed of Mach 8.5. Defense Minister Han Min-koo explained that Patriot II missiles theoretically can intercept missiles up to the speed of Mach 8 to 9. But the Kill Chain aimed at preemptively destroying North Korean missiles cannot, although the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system to be deployed within this year can. Nevertheless, even Thaad will not cover the densely-populated Seoul metropolitan area due to its geographical limitations.
The missile the North fired Sunday was not an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). If Pyongyang presses ahead with the launch of an ICBM, no one can be sure how the Trump administration will respond. Even Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se admitted to the increasing possibility of Trump taking an extreme path. If Uncle Sam opts to take such a tough path, the peninsula could be turned to ashes. To avoid that, we must restrain Pyongyang from playing with fire.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 15, Page 30