For the U.S., the launch demonstrated that the Trump Administration�s approach�a combination of threats, sanctions, and isolation�had not stalled the advance of the weapons program.
For seventy-four days, North Korea did not test a missile or a nuclear weapon, fuelling a fragile hope that Pyongyang might have blinked. That hope collapsed, dramatically, on Tuesday, when North Korea tested what appears to be its most powerful rocket yet, an intercontinental ballistic missile that is capable, in theory, of reaching anywhere in the continental United States.
The launch revealed several important things:
On a technical basis, the d�but of a rocket called the Hwasong-15 added a powerful new tool to North Korea�s arsenal. Japanese defensive missiles would have been ineffective against it. The Defense Secretary, James Mattis, said that North Korea is now capable of hitting �everywhere in the world.� (Experts on Wednesday were still studying whether the Hwasong-15 represented a new mobile solid-fuel system that could be launched with very little advance warning.)
On the diplomatic front, the launch should erase any illusions about Chinese political influence on Pyongyang, because it showed the ineffectiveness of a recent visit by the highest-ranking Chinese envoy to go to North Korea in two years. (It�s not clear whether the envoy, Song Tao, was even allowed to meet Kim Jong Un.)
For the United States, the launch demonstrated that the Trump Administration�s approach�a combination of threats, sanctions, and isolation�had not stalled the advance of the weapons program. In January, Trump taunted North Korea over its intention to develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the United States. �It won�t happen!� he tweeted. Since then, as Jeffrey Lewis, an arms-control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, noted, North Korea has demonstrated that missile capability on three occasions, while continuing to test nuclear technology. The more powerful missile also deepens the potential catastrophe that could occur if the United States were to launch a pre�mptive war and face retaliation. Based on the capability of the new weapon, Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear-weapons expert at the Stevens Institute of Technology, estimates that a strike on New York City would result in more than nine hundred thousand deaths and more than 1.5 million injuries. South Korea is increasingly worried that Trump could take military action. Moon Jae In, South Korea�s President, said, �We must stop a situation where North Korea miscalculates and threatens us with nuclear weapons, or where the United States considers a pre�mptive strike.�
The launch was orchestrated in a way that was not likely to elicit an immediate American military strike. It did not cross Washington�s most explicit red lines, which include firing missiles toward Guam or testing a nuclear device in the air over the Pacific.
To some, the launch was the clearest indication yet that if the United States wants to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons, it must move beyond its current approach of demanding a unilateral disarmament as a precondition for talks. John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University, in Seoul, told me, �The Trump Administration should open up a high-level bilateral dialogue that maps out a path to get Kim focussed on economic development, rather than missile tests. It can start with an agreement for the North Koreans to halt further development on their weapons program and the U.S. and R.O.K.��South Korea��to tone down or, in part, suspend joint military exercises. But that is just a first step, to improve the atmosphere and build a little confidence on both sides. The goal has to be a fundamental shift in the relationship so that both sides stop acting in ways that provoke, threaten, and undermine the security of the other.�
At the moment, the White House rejects the idea of such a freeze. Nevertheless, that prospect has high-profile proponents who consider it the least bad of some unattractive options. On Tuesday, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote, �What�s needed is a serious diplomatic effort to freeze weapons testing,� with a willingness by the Trump Administration to offer �sanctions relief, a formal end to the state of war or an adjustment to U.S.-South Korean military exercises.�
Delury added, �Trump needs to be realistic, and swallow the bitter pill that Obama and George W. Bush refused. We have to learn to live for some period of time with a nuclear North Korea�indeed, here in the region we already have�and denuclearization can be the endpoint of dialogue and a settlement but not its precondition.�
In the meantime, Trump gave no indication that he intends to change course. On Wednesday, after a barrage on Twitter that promoted anti-Muslim videos, and taunted NBC News and CNN, the President tweeted, �Just spoke to President XI JINPING of China concerning the provocative actions of North Korea. Additional major sanctions will be imposed on North Korea today. This situation will be handled!�