In April 2018, shortly before last June’s summit with President Trump, North Korea announced it was discontinuing its flight testing of ballistic missiles. For over a year now, it has not conducted any missile tests.
This represents a big change. In the five years 2013 to 2017, North Korea launched more than 80 flight tests of 10 different missiles, or an average of 16 flight tests per year. In 2017 alone, it launched 20 tests of seven types of missiles, including the successful launch of two different long-range missiles.
That testing led to big advances in its missile program.
As of 2015 the longest range missile it had successfully tested was the Nodong, with an estimated range of about 1,300 km (800 miles). In November 2017 it successfully tested an intercontinental-range missile with a range ten times that long—13,000 km (8,000 miles)—enough to reach most or all of the United States.
How Important is a Ban on Flight Testing
We know a lot about North Korea’s missile flight tests over the years because you can’t hide a missile fired through the atmosphere. The United States has satellite sensors and radars that detect and track those tests essentially anywhere in the world.
Missile flight testing is needed for several reasons:
- To develop new missiles
- To proof-test and determine the reliability of missiles that are being built
- To train soldiers to use missiles in combat.
Stopping flight testing limits all three of these.
Countries typically test a new missile dozens of times before deploying it. Even though North Korea had one successful launch of its Hwasong-15 ICBM in late 2017, it has little idea whether a second test would be successful. These are very complicated mechanical systems and you need repeated testing to discover the possible failure modes and understand their probabilities.
For a missile to be militarily useful, you want to know how reliable it is. And you want to understand how likely it is to blow up on the launch pad before you decide to put a nuclear warhead on it.
In addition to this, North Korea hasn’t demonstrated a working reentry heat shield on a long-range trajectory. As long as it’s willing to accept low accuracy—which it would be if it plans to target large cities—developing a working heat shield doesn’t require advanced technology. North Korea should be able to solve this problem with time, but it is unlikely to consider these missiles militarily useful without actually demonstrating the technology on a flight test. A ban on testing keeps it from doing that.
While some press reports have said that following its one successful flight test of its Hwasong-15 ICBM, North Korea is working to mass produce it, I don’t believe they would do that. Preventing further flight tests would prevent this missile from becoming militarily useful. It would also limit operational training of military troops with its missiles.
So preserving North Korea’s ban on flight tests is an important security measure. And as noted above, a ban on flight testing has the advantage that it is completely verifiable with existing sensors.
What Does the Current Test Ban Cover?
When Kim announced the end of flight tests in April 2018, he said:
“no nuclear tests and intermediate-range and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for the DPRK now. … We will discontinue nuclear tests and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire from April 21.”
So while North Korea has not flight tested any missiles in the past 15 months, it only announced it would stop testing long-range missiles—those with ranges longer than 5,500 km (3,500 miles). That includes the Hwasong-14 and 15 missiles.
A ban on testing long-range missiles would leave North Korea the option of continuing to develop and test intermediate and shorter range missiles. That includes the Hwasong-12, which may be able to reach US military bases in Guam. Banning only long-range flight tests would also allow North Korea to train soldiers with its existing shorter range missiles, which can reach targets in South Korea and Japan.
A key goal of the upcoming summit and future US-North Korean negotiations should be to formalize the testing ban, to make it permanent, and to extend it to cover shorter range missiles. The United States should also press for a ban on engine tests, and make clear the flight test ban includes satellite launches.
North Korea has not yet taken irreversible steps toward ending its missile program. But it has taken meaningful steps that would have been unthinkable as recently as 2017, and that suggests an openness to further steps that would be more meaningful. That would significantly advance security interests of the United States and its allies in the region.
Achieving these steps is likely to require a phased step-by-step process. There are a set of potential steps the United States could take as part of the negotiations. These include discussions of a peace treaty or new security arrangement in the region, scaling back military exercises that the North sees as threatening, and selective easing of sanctions.
A verified ban on flight testing, of course, is just a step. The ultimate goal should be to stop further missile development and production at all levels, and to eliminate existing missiles—and that is what the United States should be working for. But that will require North Korea to feel secure enough to agree to these steps, which would include intrusive verification measures. That is not going to happen overnight and will require reciprocal steps by the United States.
It’s worth noting that the United States has had a lot of hands-on experience with verifying the elimination and non-production of missiles over the past 30 years through the verification measures of the INF Treaty, which it recently announced it was leaving.
What about Reports that North Korea is Continuing to Build Up its Missile Sites?
North Korea has taken several steps that are consistent with its statement about discontinuing nuclear and missile tests. In May 2018 it destroyed the entrances and some of the tunnels at its nuclear test site. In July it dismantled some facilities at one of its main missile test sites. While these steps were done without international inspectors present and could be reversed, they are interesting steps that are consistent with a willingness to end testing.
More recently there have been press reports of satellite images that show Korean missile bases that had not been publicly identified earlier, and show that North Korea has been continuing its ongoing work at some of these sites. These send a different message.
But these reports shouldn’t derail negotiations. It’s useful to have more information about these sites as part of the public discussion, but it’s important to recognize that these “secret” sites have long been known and are being monitored by US intelligence.
Moreover, there is nothing in the negotiations so far that has obligated Pyongyang to stop work on these bases or dismantle them. Working to get agreement on such steps is an important goal for the upcoming summit. If the United States sees those steps as important, it should decide what it is willing to put on the table to get them.