The Fact of the Matter: North Korea’s ICBM Test Does Not Represent a ‘Dangerous Escalation’

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Editor’s Note: The Fact of the Matter is an ongoing series that highlights — and corrects — common misconceptions in conventional wisdom. Contributions to this series are from experts at the nonpartisan Stimson Center.

By Jacqueline Kempfer

The Common Misconception

North Korea’s recent launch of an ICBM is a watershed moment that marks a new era in the global response to its nuclear weapon’s program:

CNN: “US policy towards North Korea has entered an unpredictable new era”
Washington Post: “North Korea’s missile was a ‘real ICBM’ — and a grave milestone”
Wall Street Journal: “North Korea’s launch of its first ballistic missile that it claimed could reach the continental U.S. raised the stakes for Washington…”
New York Times: “…described by the United States as a “dangerous escalation” in what has become a crisis for the Trump administration.”

The Fact of the Matter

The test — while alarming — does not represent a ‘dangerous escalation.’ And talk that the test represents a ‘grave milestone’ is hyperbole. While clearly making progress, there is no evidence as yet that North Korea has the technological capability to ‘miniaturize’ and deliver a nuclear warhead via an ICBM.

Additional Background

The closed nature of the North Korean regime always impedes the ability of analysts to gather details about its missile tests. Without direct observation, we only know what we can glean from the murky view that is available. Often, it is the lack of evidence that reveals the most. There is no evidence that North Korea possesses a nuclear warhead small enough for delivery by an ICBM. Even if it did have this capability, there is no evidence that North Korea has tested a reentry vehicle capable of delivering the warhead to its intended target.[1] Both developments are necessary for a targeted nuclear attack on the United States. North Korea could already potentially reach parts of Hawaii and U.S. bases and allies in the Pacific, including the tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel and their families stationed in the region. But current North Korean capabilities would only support an untargeted attack.

North Korea has conducted five nuclear weapons tests since 2006, and has test launched 17 missiles in 2017 alone.[2] This test is the latest, demonstrating a new capability, but not a capability that fundamentally changes the balance of power in the region or the ability of North Korea to deliver an ICBM. The current status of the North Korean ICBM can be likened to a puzzle that is short a few key pieces. You can almost make out the final product, but it’s still incomplete. The moment the puzzle is complete, and the image becomes clear, this is the milestone that will mark a new era.

Jacqueline Kempfer is a Research Assistant with the WMD, Nonproliferation, and Security program at the nonpartisan Stimson Center.

[1] Drollette, Dan. “North Korea’s Latest Missile Test.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. July 5, 2017:; Sang-Hun, Choe. “U.S. Confirms North Korea Fired Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.” New York Times. July 4, 2017:

[2] Arms Control Association. Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy:; Nuclear Threat Initiative. North Korea Missile Overview.


Photo credit (Stephan)
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