It's received only passing attention in this country, but there was another significant event in North Korea--with repercussions far beyond the peninsula--just hours before the most recent nuclear test.
According to various intelligence reports, Pyongyang conducted an engine test of its KN-08 long-range missile on 11 February, one day ahead of the nuclear test. From South Korea's liberal daily, The Hankyoreh:
The test was apparently conducted at the rocket launch site in Dongchang Village, North Pyongan province, with the aim of extending the [10,000 km] firing range of the KN-08, which has never been test-launched, a source explained.
When the KN-08 TEL (transporter-erector-launcher) first appeared last year, some analysts claimed the vehicle was nothing more than a mock-up. But that assessment ignored a well-established fact about military parades in Pyongyang: the North only displays equipment that is in operational service, or will be in the near future. The recent deployment of the TEL vehicles suggests they are entering operational service, and the missile they will carry isn't far behind.
The KN-08 has been called a "game-changer" for the DPRK, and with good reason. Assuming the missile achieves its projected range, the KN-08 would give Pyongyang a strike platform capable of reaching much of the CONUS. And with a mobile launch platform--supported by one of the world's most advanced denial and deception programs--the KN-08 will be extremely difficult to track and target. Among its various roles, the kN-08 could easily deliver a sudden, surprise attack against the U.S., giving the North increased leverage in its dealings with Washington, and our allies in the region.
If the long-range missile follows North Korea's "traditional" development path, there will probably be a failure (or two) along the way, as demonstrated during research and testing of the TD-2 missile and the nuclear program. But Pyongyang will almost certainly stay the course; joining the nuclear club has long been the nation's top strategic priority, and fielding an ICBM capable of hitting the United States isn't far behind. True, American will always enjoy an overwhelming nuclear advantage over the DPRK, but even if North Korea has only a handful of nuclear-tipped KN-08s, it will change the strategic calculus, both strategically and globally.
In East Asia, there will be continuing concerns about North Korea's expanding nuclear arsenal, and U.S. regional security guarantees. With America's military facing severe budget cuts, some of our allies will wonder about our ability to deter DPRK aggression in the region. That, in turn, will prompt nations like South Korea and even Japan to consider their own nuclear options. With both countries possessing advanced scientific and technical infrastructures, Tokyo and Seoul could join the nuclear club in as little a s two years, further ratcheting up tensions in the region.
Making matters worse, Pyongyang will share its nuclear weapons and missile technology with Iran (and possibly others) in the Middle East. So, it's quite likely that Iran will have its on ICBM in the coming years, along with nuclear warheads small enough to fit atop that airframe--and capable of striking targets throughout Europe and the United States. Like North Korea, Iran's arsenal of of missiles and warheads will be small, but enough to hold American facilities and population centers at risk, and alter our calculations in dealing with Iran.
The obvious response to these emerging threats is two-fold: a vigorous missile defense program and a nuclear doctrine that is crystal clear: any WMD attack against the U.S., our facilities and our allies will bring an overwhelming response-in-kind. But that type of thinking is considered passe in defense and diplomatic circles; after all, the U.S. is no longer allowed to run around threatening lesser powers with nuclear Armageddon. Somewhere, Curt LeMay must be spinning in his grave.
So, Washington will likely try to muddle the current crisis on the peninsula, just as it has for almost a decade. There will be more talks, both publicly and in secret. In fact, it was just disclosed that a high-level U.S. delegations visited the DPRK on at least three separate occasions. In one instance, American officials tried to dissuade the North from conducting a missile test the effort failed, and the test went off less than two days after the Americans departed.
Did we mention that we never told the Japanese about the private talks? Needless to say, Tokyo is a little bit peeved right now and even more suspicious of U.S. promises and guarantees, particularly with a nuclear game-changer ready to join the North Korean arsenal.