Policy Implications of North Korea's New Missile Test

Korea Chair Snapshot

North Korea launched a new missile on May 14th, the same day the Chinese were hosting their biggest event of the year, the “Belt and Road Forum (BRF)” for International Cooperation in Beijing. According to North Korean state media, the new missile “Hwasong-12” flew approximately 787 kilometers (489 miles) and reached a height of 2,111.5 kilometers (1311 miles) before falling into the East Sea. Analysts assert that the lofted trajectory suggests that the missile was purposely launched at a steep angle and that the real range of the missile if shot at a normal angle could be upwards of 4,500 kilometers. This also suggests that the new missile could potentially reach as far as U.S. bases in Guam if the initial analysis is confirmed over the next few weeks.

  • This latest missile launch demonstrates that we have once again underestimated North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities.  While there are still substantial technical hurdles to overcome in order to threaten the continental United States, this launch represents a leap in ballistic missile technology.
  • The action will also mute the new South Korean government's enthusiasm for a return to engagement or sunshine policies with North Korea.  Already, the South Korean president has condemned the launch as an unnecessary provocation that inhibits dialogue.
  • CSIS data studies suggest that inter-Korean engagement does not stop North Korean missile or WMD events.  A historical study indicates the absence of a significant correlation between periods of South Korean engagement with North Korea and Pyongyang's refraining from provocations.
  • The consistent drive for ICBM capabilities reminds us that North Korea's strategic objective is not just for its security, but to break the U.S.-ROK alliance.  Pyongyang wants to pose a homeland security threat in order to undercut the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence guarantees to South Korea.  
  • A CSIS-Predata analytic prediction from May 12th and Beyond Parallel’s correlational study on North Korean provocations and South Korean elections suggested that there was an elevated chance for North Korea WMD activity to happen within the next 14 days.  
Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair