North Korea nuclear crisis
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waves to scientists and technicians who helped develop his missile programme. Photo: Reuters

North Korea’s passed a dangerous nuclear threshold – did anybody notice?

Kim Jong-un’s missile programme may not yet be ‘perfect’, but the latest tests reveal ominous progress that could put the United States and China within its range – and sooner rather than later

Not unlike the boy who cried wolf, North Korea’s repeated claims that it has “perfected” its missile technology tend to be dismissed internationally as yet another round of bluster.

Part of the process of acquiring a nuclear deterrent – even before it is perfected – is to exaggerate its threat.

The goal is to keep Pyongyang’s adversaries at bay, to shock them into a state of strategic immobility. In a multi-party setting, where the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea are all keen to prevent North Korea’s nuclear progress, such a ruse makes perfect sense.

The more these countries disagree with one another about how to dismantle its nuclear programme, the more likely it is that Pyongyang can achieve its double objectives.

But there was something very unique and exceptional about its latest missile test: not only did the projectile make it into space, it successfully re-entered Earth’s atmosphere without suddenly exploding.

A North Korean ground-to-ground medium-to-long range strategic ballistic missile launches in a test-fire. North Korea on May 22 declared its medium-range Pukguksong-2 missile ready for deployment. Photo: AFP

Both are major breakthroughs for Kim Jong-un’s missile programme. The curvature of the Earth makes re-entry tricky; the slightest miscalculation can cause a missile to veer off course.

Scientists in the US, Japan and South Korea concurred that North Korea achieved a “smooth” re-entry. In other words, Pyongyang has demonstrated an ability to have its missiles actually hit their targets.

Last weekend’s launch, along with the test on May 14, shows North Korea has attained a new level of accuracy. Not only can they land in the Sea of Japan, they can strike specific areas targeted prior to launch.

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During re-entry, the missile was also able to withstand a temperature of nearly 5,000 degrees Celsius without overheating or exploding, a fact ignored by many defence analysts.

This resilience to extreme heat suggests Kim Jong-un’s scientists have been able to create a missile with an inner core insulated enough to protect a nuclear device while in flight.

North Koreans watch a screen showing news coverage of a missile launch at a public square in central Pyongyang. Photo: AFP

Analysts have long considered the largest obstacles to North Korea’s ballistic missile programme to be achieving re-entry and miniaturising a nuclear warhead to the point it could be mounted on a missile.

Although military experts suggest it will take about three years for the technology to be applied to an intercontinental missile capable of striking the mainland US, successful re-entry is a major step towards that goal.

Thus, the successful missile launch should be taken seriously. What might seem like an innocuous sling of a missile has actually taken North Korea’s weaponry into a new age.

The ability to gain targeted re-entry is clearly acknowledged by Kim Jong-un as a tremendous breakthrough. According to the Korean Central News Agency, he argues that the missile is now “perfect” and ready for mass deployment.

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Although Kim Jong-un is known to regale in dramatic gestures – killing his half-brother Kim Jong-nam in an airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with VX agent and murdering his uncle – this boast wasn’t simply white noise.

Not surprisingly, the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, still trying to organise his State Department, declared that the missile test was both “disturbing and dangerous”.

The fact that stock markets have yet to react to North Koroea’s “paradigm shift” speaks to how inured, almost immune, the world has become to the repeated taunts of North Korea since 2012. If it continues to be ignored, there’s always the risk Pyongyang could ratchet up its threats and capabilities.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, centre, speaks to his aides in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: EPA

And the frequency of North’s Korea’s tests – a sixth nuclear test could occur at any time – implies an unwillingness to even delve into talks of Korean reunification.

With each launch, it is clear that North Korea is more interested in holding the world to ransom rather than engaging in any dialogue with South Korea, even though President Moon Jae-in was elected into the Blue House to look into the possibility of starting a dialogue.

If North Korea has any interest in talking to Moon, the time is now, as the South Korean leader enjoys 80 per cent popularity. Yet, Kim Jong-un is completely inert on that front.

Thus, while the world was not paying much attention, North Korea has done its part to move the hand of the infamous Doomsday Clock closer to midnight. Tokyo, Seoul and any other city within its range is a potential target – not just the coastal areas in the Sea of Japan.

Next on North Korea’s agenda is to hone its missile programme to plausibly threaten the US and even China, if Beijing refuses to do its bidding.