And it could spark a crisis like no other.
As North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs have become more adventurous, a worrying possibility has begun to emerge. There’s a chance that—at some point—the North Koreans might want to combine the two testing programs, by putting a live nuclear warhead on top of a ballistic missile. That means, assuming all goes as it should, the missile would fly downrange to its appointed target zone, and the warhead would detonate in the atmosphere. That sort of test—an end-to-end test of the full weapon system—would be a convincing demonstration that Pyongyang had crossed the critical bridges: that it had a long-range ballistic missile with the throw-weight to carry a nuclear warhead, a warhead able to be placed atop the missile, and a re-entry vehicle that could survive the stresses of re-entry.
It would also be dangerous. A lot can go wrong during a ballistic missile test. When things do go wrong, missile controllers usually order the missile to self-destruct. But most missile tests don’t involve live nuclear warheads. Besides, in the early stages of a missile’s development, testing is primarily about learning the limitations and vulnerabilities of the particular weapon system. Becoming familiar with a ballistic missile typically involves a number of launches—and God knows North Korea does few enough of those as it is. Remember the Hwasong-12, Pyongyang’s intermediate-range ballistic missile? It’s been tested three times. The Hwasong-14 ICBM? That was tested twice, both times on lofted trajectories. The latest missile, the Hwasong-15, has been test-fired only once—again, on a lofted trajectory.
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