North Korea Missile Test Appears to Tiptoe Over a U.S. Tripwire

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from The New York Times,

For months, Washington has been bracing for North Korea to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, waiting to see how close it could get to the United States and how aggressively President Trump should react.

Now, it looks as if Kim Jong-un, the North’s 33-year-old leader, has a different plan — one intended to improve his ability to strike the United States without setting off an American military response.

Instead of going for distance, he has stepped up the testing of missiles that fly high into space — on Sunday, one reached a height of more than 1,300 miles — and then plunge down through the atmosphere, mimicking the kind of fiery re-entries a nuclear warhead would undergo if fired over a much longer distance. Instead, the payload lands in waters a few hundred miles or so from North Korea’s coast.

“They can simulate an ICBM warhead on this kind of trajectory,” David C. Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a private group in Cambridge, Mass., said in an interview. “It’s a kind of steppingstone.”

John Schilling, an aerospace engineer and an expert on North Korea’s missile program, called this relatively low-key experimentation a possible hedge against a military response. Sunday’s unobtrusive test, he said, could nonetheless “represent a substantial advance” that might bring the debut of a working intercontinental missile closer than previously estimated.

“We think they’ve had enough time to mate a nuclear weapon to a missile,” Michael Morell, a Central Intelligence Agency deputy director in the Obama administration, recently told “CBS This Morning.” “So the threat is now.”

Analysts said Sunday’s test flight, if conducted on a normal rather than a high trajectory, would have traveled about 3,000 miles. That is well beyond the sprawling American base at Guam, some 2,200 miles away. More important, it would make the flight distance the longest to date for one of the North’s military missiles and thus represent a major technical success for the beleaguered nation.

Dr. Wright agreed that the successful test flight represented a major step forward. “If they’ve got a system with a new engine and can scale that up,” he said, “they’ve got a pretty believable path to an ICBM.”

In political signaling, he added, what the North’s test is telling the West is: “Hey, we’re on our way. If you want to talk, now’s the time to do it.”

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