What now for 'nuclear state' North Korea?

SEOUL • 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 (ICBM) yesterday.

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?


The North said yesterday's test was of a new ICBM - called Hwasong-15 - 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 13,000km.

"Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington, 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.


The ramifications of the North's "nuclear statehood" remain to be seen, but the clear suggestion is that Pyongyang now believes it has a nuclear arsenal that amounts to a credible, working deterrent.

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 yesterday's test was a step towards ballistic missiles that can "threaten everywhere in the world, basically".


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

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

Much of the focus will be on China, Pyongyang's chief ally, and how it reacts.

China has pushed for a "dual-track approach" that 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, yesterday's test might have rendered such a trade-off obsolete anyway.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2017, with the headline 'What now for 'nuclear state' North Korea?'. Print Edition | Subscribe