What now for 'nuclear state' North Korea?

The intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 is seen during its test in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang, North Korea on July 5, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared his country had achieved its long-cherished goal of full-fledged nuclear statehood after successfully testing a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday (Nov 29).

The United States and its allies have always maintained they would never accept a nuclear North Korea, but have been forced to watch from the sidelines as Pyongyang pursued an accelerated weapons drive.

But what did the latest test actually achieve and does the North's claim to have completed its nuclear deterrent open the door to diplomatic negotiations?

A new missile?

The North said Wednesday's test was of a new ICBM - called a Hwasong 15 - that was capable of carrying a "super-large heavy warhead" to any target in the continental United States.

The North provided no images from the test for outside experts to analyse, but initial flight data suggested it was indeed a more powerful missile - with some estimating a range of around 13,0000 kilometres (nearly 8,100 miles).

"Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington DC, and in fact any part of the continental United States," said US-based arms control expert David Wright.

Some questions will likely remain over the North's mastery of the technology required to guarantee any warhead would survive atmospheric re-entry - the key element it has not yet demonstrated.

A new nuclear state?

Much is already being made of leader Kim Jong Un's declaration after the test that the North had finally realised "the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force." Whether that means no more nuclear or missile tests in the future remains to be seen, but the clear suggestion is that Pyongyang now believes it has a nuclear arsenal that amounts to a credible, working deterrent.

"To me, 'completing' sounds pretty robust, not just about quality, but quantity," said Melissa Hanham, senior research associate with the East Asia Nonproliferation Programme of the Middlebury Institute.

SPH Brightcove Video
Catch a glimpse of daily life in North Korea, one of the world's most reclusive countries. The Straits Times spent a week in its capital Pyongyang in October.

It is likely that the US and its allies will continue to refuse to recognise North Korea as a nuclear state, but US Defence Secretary James Mattis conceded that Wednesday's test was a step towards ballistic missiles that can "threaten everywhere in the world, basically."

The North's end goal has always been a nuclear strike threat against the United States and it often refers to its nuclear weapons as a "treasured sword" to protect itself from potential invasion by its US "imperialist enemy." .

What next?

While some countries will shudder at Kim's declaration of nuclear statehood, others might see a diplomatic opening.

The North has always said its nuclear weapons are not up for negotiation, and that it will only deal with the United States from a position of equality - which it now suggests it has attained.

Significantly, the official statement on the missile test included a "solemn declaration" that the North would always be a "responsible nuclear power" and pose no danger to any other country as long as it did not come under threat itself.

But sitting down with a "nuclear" North Korea that only achieved its status by defying multiple UN resolutions would represent an enormous climbdown - not just for the US, but the international community at large.

Then again, global pressure has proved remarkably ineffective in reining Pyongyang in so far, and the calls for dialogue are likely to grow stronger.

The UN Security Council was due to meet in emergency session later Wednesday and, as always with North Korea, much of the focus will be on China and how it reacts.

The North's sole major ally has grown increasingly frustrated with Pyongyang's provocations. But China has a strategic interest in avoiding any regime collapse in the North which could bring about a reunified Korea allied to the United States.

China has pushed for a "dual track approach" which would see the US freeze its military drills in South Korea in exchange for the North halting its weapons programmes.

Washington has repeatedly rejected such a quid pro quo, but if the North's claims are true, Wednesday's test might have rendered such a trade-off obsolete anyway.

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