North Korea on Sunday launched a new ballistic missile, the Pukguksong-2. The launch represents not just a significant advancement for Pyongyang’s missile program, but the first foreign policy challenge for the Trump administration.
North Korea-watchers had expected the regime to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in the wake of its leader Kim Jong Un’s remarks on January 1 that preparations for such a launch had reached the final stage. Pyongyang confirmed that the missile uses solid propellant, and that it could be tipped with a nuclear warhead.
The Pukguksong-2 is probably a land-based variant of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. A preliminary analysis suggested the new missile could travel 1,200 to 1,250 kilometers, and one analyst called the launch a “huge step forward” for North Korea’s missile arsenal and capabilities.
The new missile’s use of solid propellant offers a number of advantages over its liquid counterpart, including the ability to launch in just five minutes as opposed to 30 to 60. The size and success of the Pukguksong-2 also put North Korea on track to fielding additional solid-propellant intermediate-range missiles and ICBMs that, with the short time required to fire them, would be difficult for the U.S. military to destroy and could eventually threaten the American homeland.
The Pukguksong-2 launch was likely timed to coincide with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meeting with President Trump. In a hastily arranged statement, Abe said the launch was “absolutely intolerable” and Trump affirmed that the United States stands behind Japan. South Korea’s acting president said that Seoul would make a “corresponding” response, while China issued a typically noncommittal reaction calling on all sides to refrain from provocations.
At the urging of the United States, Japan, and South Korea, the United Nations Security Council held an emergency session on February 13. The Council, however, merely issued a press release – one of its lowest forms of condemnation – in what was likely the result of China’s long-standing effort to minimize the North Korean issue at the UN. For years, Beijing has refused to allow robust responses to Pyongyang’s provocations by only agreeing to additional sanctions or designations following a North Korean nuclear test or satellite launches using ballistic missile technology.
The Trump administration should issue additional unilateral sanctions in response to the launch, but any such efforts will be insufficient without also focusing on China’s efforts to downplay North Korea’s tests. If that cannot be achieved in the Security Council, Washington should build a coalition outside the UN to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang.
Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as a foreign policy fellow in the Office of Senator Marco Rubio and an official at the U.S. Departments of the Treasury and State. Follow him on Twitter @_ARuggiero