Right around the beginning of his term in January 2017, U.S. president Donald Trump vowed that North Korea would never test an intercontinental ballistic missile—one capable of delivering Pyongyang’s nuclear warheads across the continental United States.
“It won’t happen!” Trump tweeted.
Four years later, North Korea twice has tested an ICBM. And Pyongyang’s atomic arsenal is only growing. In what could be North Korea’s final nuclear advancement of Trump’s presidency, Pyongyang early Saturday morning revealed one of the biggest ICBMs in the world, a 66-foot-long, liquid-fueled monster that rides on an 11-axle transporter-erector-launcher.
The new ICBM, possibly designated Hwasong-16, is among the biggest nuclear-capable rockets in the world. Among other atomic giants, the Russian R-36 and Chinese DF-5—both also liquid-fueled—are bigger at more than 100 feet in length. But both of those ICBMs launch from silos.
The new road-mobile ICBM appeared at a military parade in Pyongyang commemorating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of North Korea. “This gathering, which the world people would admire, demonstrates that we have overcome all the calamities that troubled us and blocked our way and that we have attained with success our justifiable fighting goals,” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stated.
The specific rocket that appeared in the parade might be a non-working mock-up. But that’s not out of the ordinary for the Kim regime. “Parades are usually mock-ups,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, “but it is normal to build mock-ups before you fly them. The North Koreans have generally followed through on testing the things we see in the parades.”
Analysts quickly got to work assessing the new ICBM. Michael Elleman, the director of the Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, assumed the rocket is powered by a cluster of four RD-250 engines delivering a combined 160 tons of thrust—twice the power of North Korea’s older Hwasong-15 ICBM.
“If these estimates are close to reality, the missile, in principle, could deliver 2,000 to 3,500 kilograms to any point on [the continental United States],” Elleman tweeted.
Pyongyang might be aiming to field a more powerful ICBM that can carry more than one warhead at a time. “This is a natural evolution,” Lewis said, “bundling more RD-250 engines together to increase the throw-weight of the missile so it can handle multiple warheads.”
North Korea developed the powerful new rocket in spite of Trump’s direct efforts to befriend Kim. Trump and Kim have met three times. None of the talks resulted in meaningful limits on North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program.
Still, Trump bizarrely claimed he and the younger North Korean leader “fell in love.”
It should go without saying that no existing defensive system can stop a rocket in the class of North Korea’s new ICBM. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency in 2017 began testing its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense missiles against “threat-representative ICBM target” rockets.
But the tests haven’t been very realistic. The target rockets apparently traveled slower than actual ICBMs do. “We should not be thinking about the GMD as a robust defense or a robust deterrent,” Laura Grego, a missile expert with the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, told NPR. “It does not provide protection in a real-world sense.”
Defenseless and having all but given up on meaningful diplomacy under Trump, the United States can only scold North Korea for developing rockets capable of nuking American cities.
“It is disappointing to see the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] continuing to prioritize its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile program over working towards a brighter future for the North Korean people,” a Trump administration official told Reuters reporter Josh Smith.