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Could North Korea's ICBM test open a door to US talks?
Washington (AFP) Nov 29, 2017

US believes it can defend against N. Korea missiles, for now
Washington (AFP) Nov 29 - The US military remains confident it can -- at least for the moment -- protect against any North Korean missile threat, a US official said Wednesday after Pyongyang tested a new rocket type.

North Korea earlier launched a previously unseen intercontinental ballistic missile, which it called a Hwasong 15 and claimed was capable of carrying a "super-large heavy warhead" to any target in the continental United States.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said the missile flew higher than any other from North Korea, and warned that Pyongyang could soon threaten "everywhere in the world."

The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that America has not changed its assessment that its various missile defense systems can stop a North Korean missile attack, though the guarantee cannot be ensured indefinitely.

"I don't think they could successfully nuke the US at this time," the official said.

"There is a general sense we can stop whatever North Korea has right now. For the future, I don't know."

The United States has spent decades and billions of dollars developing technologies to stop an incoming ballistic missile, and Congress is throwing billions more dollars at the Pentagon to step up its efforts.

To protect against an ICBM, the military has the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which is designed to fire an interceptor missile into space and use kinetic energy to destroy the incoming target.

America has 44 interceptors in place at Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

It was put to the test in May, when the military successfully launched a GMD interceptor from the California base.

- Checkered record -

The missile blasted outside Earth's atmosphere and smashed into a dummy ICBM target, destroying it in a direct collision.

But the GMD system has had a checkered record in previous tests -- failing in earlier launches against slower-moving targets.

The official said the GMD system can shield the entire continental United States and its territories, so it is not yet necessary to install the system on the East Coast.

The GMD can stop a small number of missiles from a rogue nation but would be overwhelmed by an all-out strike from a nuclear superpower like Russia.

Such a move would likely trigger retaliatory action in what is known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

Some questions 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 official said that the angle of re-entry demonstrated in Wednesday's test, in which the missile went very steeply up and down, did not prove that a re-entry vehicle could survive a flight along a lower arc.

That is because the heat and friction generated by such a re-entry into Earth's atmosphere are far greater.

Michael Elleman, a senior fellow for missile defense with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said North Korea was still a year away from being able to hit the West Coast of the US with a "viable" ICBM.

"North Korea appears to have taken another minor step forward as it attempts to mature its ICBM technology," he wrote on the 38 North website that provides analysis on North Korea.

"Many more tests are needed to establish the missile's performance and reliability, and it remains unclear if the North's engineers have attempted to validate the efficacy of the missile's re-entry vehicle."

The US military and its allies have other missile defense systems available, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system capable of destroying short, medium and intermediate-range missiles in their final phase of flight.

North Korea's development of a missile capable of hitting the United States could present an opening for dialogue, some experts argue, if Washington can accept Pyongyang as a nuclear power.

If Kim Jong-Un feels he has succeeded in his quest to build a weapon to deter any attempt to overthrow his regime, he may be open to talks to end his dangerous stand-off with the United States.

But, so far, President Donald Trump's administration has continued to insist that the North cannot be permitted to deploy its missiles and has vowed to ramp up economic sanctions still further.

"We have a long list of additional potential sanctions, some of which involve potential financial institutions," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, insisting the pressure strategy remains viable.

"As a diplomat, we keep working on it every day," he said.

Tillerson has been the main US champion of a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, hoping that economic and diplomatic isolation will force Kim to agree to talks to negotiate his disarmament.

The diplomatic route has borne fruit: Several countries have cut relations with the North, the UN Security Council has approved tougher sanctions and China has promised to enforce them.

But Kim has not blinked. He continues to trade public insults and threats of war with Trump, and on Tuesday he defiantly tested a powerful intercontinental missile in defiance.

In short, as Tillerson's spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Wednesday, "North Korea is showing no interest in sitting down and having conversations with the world at this point."

Privately, however, some US diplomats admit Kim has already got what he wants, a credible nuclear deterrent, and many independent observers say Washington will just have to live with it.

"The North Koreans have always been willing to talk, they're just not willing to talk about giving up their nuclear weapons," argues non-proliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute.

"Having got this far they're not going to talk about that," he said "We can talk about deterrence, stability, reducing tensions, resolving security issues, about living with a nuclear North Korea."

Washington is not yet ready to do this. In the aftermath of Tuesday's test Trump and Tillerson hit their phones to reassure allies of their resolve and press China for greater efforts.

- Oil embargo -

The United States will urge the UN Security Council to further increase international sanctions and is considering calling for an oil embargo and inspections of shipping headed for North Korea.

As Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia program at the Kissinger Institute, wrote on Twitter: "US still has a lot of options to respond to the ICBM test: Oil embargo, maritime interdiction, ban on foreign labor, secondary sanctions, deepen diplomatic isolation, strengthen military posture in region.

"Will these bring complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the DPRK's nuclear program? Doubtful," he wrote.

"If Pyongyang truly believes it has completed developing and demonstrating a credible nuclear deterrent, this may be an opening for diplomacy."

China, the North's giant neighbor and main trading partner, is reluctant to take any measures that would destabilize the regime and lead to chaos, refugees or a US occupation force on its border.

And in any case, it is far from clear that sanctions could ever convince Kim -- who has made a strategic decision that only nuclear weapons can protect his rule and win his regime respect.

As Lewis explains, years of sanctions have failed to prevent Pyongyang from developing bombs and missiles, and they won't change the mind of a leader who fears a grisly fate if overthrown.

"The thing the North Koreans are afraid of is ending up like Saddam or Kadhafi -- and there are no sanctions in the world that are worse than that!" he told AFP.

If sanctions won't work, and Washington is not prepared to admit that Kim has won his bet on becoming a nuclear power, then might Trump make good on his threat to rain "fire and fury" on his foe?

The option remains on the table, and the United States continues to train with South Korea forces despite calls from China and others for a freeze on exercises as a gesture of reassurance.

But privately, US officials and diplomats in Washington admit that the options for confronting a nuclear-armed North Korea are limited, with any strike likely to trigger a war that could leave millions dead.

North Korean ICBM program runs into major roadblock at reentry
Seoul (Sputnik) Nov 20, 2017
The South Korean foreign intelligence service has reported that North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program has hit a snag, as the communist country has run into difficulty developing reliable atmospheric re-entry technology that would allow their missile to return from Earth's orbit. The report came from the National Intelligence Service (NIS), who met behind closed do ... read more

Related Links
Learn about nuclear weapons doctrine and defense at SpaceWar.com
Learn about missile defense at SpaceWar.com
All about missiles at SpaceWar.com
Learn about the Superpowers of the 21st Century at SpaceWar.com

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