North Korea's missile test this week marked a grave turning point that should rally a global response to the threat of a rogue nuclear state. The North Koreans sent a rocket high into space, testing the conditions an intercontinental ballistic missile would need to survive and signaling the outlaw nation's potential to destabilize global security. This is an ominous development, and with the clock ticking, world leaders need to halt the North's nuclear drive before the only recourse is a military one.
The nation's official KCNA news agency said the missile, named Hwasong-12, was fired on Sunday and flew for 30 minutes, completing a trajectory of 489 miles and reaching an altitude of 1,312 miles. The successful test represents a major step in the North's nuclear program. Rather than go for distance, the launch mimicked some conditions that would be involved in firing an ICBM, such as controlling for re-entry and maintaining missile stability. Launched on a normal trajectory, the missile could have traveled 3,000 miles. While the North would need 4,800 miles of flight to strike the U.S. mainland, the test showed the progress the nation is making in developing long-range missile technology. The state news agency also said Sunday's launch tested the nation's ability to carry a "large size" nuclear warhead.
In response, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement expressing "utmost concern" over the test and pledging that its members would take "further significant measures," including sanctions, in an effort to contain the North's nuclear program. Though the North has accelerated its missile testing in recent years, Sunday's launch appeared aimed at avoiding a military response. It also amounted to a first test of South Korea's new president, Moon Jae In, a liberal who favors dialogue and engagement with North Korea.
Whatever its intentions, the North's speedy progress and the resources it is committing to its nuclear program — even in the face of global condemnation and economic pressure — reflects the importance the nuclear trigger has for the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. And while many observers estimate that an ICBM is still years away, the window is narrowing for a negotiated deal that would dampen the North's ambitions and relieve the world community of the need to respond with pre-emptive military action.
Moon's office announced on Tuesday that he accepted an offer by President Donald Trump to visit the White House; the two will meet in Washington in June to discuss a new approach that might bring North Korea to the bargaining table. The two agree on the larger goal of a nuclear-free North, and both have said they are open to talks under the right conditions. Given the U.S. commitment to South Korea's defense, this is an opportunity to explore a more nuanced opening to the North. China should see its interest in regional stability as a reason for playing a constructive role with its client state.
There is no basis for a fresh era of optimism in dealing with Kim, a young and erratic leader who has not fully established himself at home or abroad. Pyongyang has also said it would be open to talks, but what that means is unclear. Trump and Moon should look to agree on a new strategy. However far apart the United States and South Korea are with the North, Pyongyang may finally have the leverage it wants to negotiate. The North's progress has also alarmed the region enough to generate a climate for bilateral talks. A solid, verifiable deal still seems far off. But the time to talk is right simply because there isn't much time left.