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- North Korea tested a capable ICBM on Tuesday night, but it has already hinted at a more dangerous test that could bring the world to the brink of war.
- North Korea previously threatened to detonate a nuclear device above the Pacific, and then demanded for the threat to be taken literally.
- Though the test would be destructive and provocative, North Korea has several reasons to attempt it.
North Korea launched its most capable ever missile on Tuesday night, displaying a range that could likely bring a nuclear blast down on the US mainland — but it has already hinted at a more dangerous test.
In its media, North Korea routinely swears to conduct missile tests and complete a missile program that can strike the US with nuclear weapons, but after President Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea in a speech to the UN, Pyongyang laid out another goal.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said Kim Jong Un would “probably” respond with “the strongest hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean.”
Later in October, a senior North Korean official told CNN’s Will Ripley to take the threat “literally,” and hinted it may follow the completion of an ICBM, which North Korea declared on Wednesday.
ICBM tests are safe compared to nuclear detonations
North Korea’s latest ICBM test drew condemnation from world leaders, and brought the US and North Korea “closer to war,” according to the US’s Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, but did virtually zero damage.
The missile launched, crested at 2,800 feet, and splashed down into the Sea of Japan.
If North Korea carries out its threat to detonate a nuclear device over the Pacific, it could impact millions of lives.
“If North Korea does do an atmospheric test, it really does change the game,” Jenny Town, a managing editor at 38 North, previously told Business Insider. “The amount of contamination it would cause both in the atmosphere and the ocean is something that will last for years.”
North Korea essentially nuking the ocean would have far-reaching impacts and draw international condemnation. With the amount of traffic at sea and number of people who rely on the ocean for food and their livelihoods, it’s likely the test would kill people directly or indirectly.
Additionally, atmospheric detonations of nuclear weapons carry the risk of electromagnetic pulses, which could shut down electrical grids and cripple infrastructure.
North Korea may have no choice
North Korea’s underground testing site recently withstood a nuclear blast at least ten times as powerful as the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima, and it’s been worse for wear. Reports of cave-ins, landslides, and mini-earthquakes have followed the test as the ground under the mountain resettled.
Though intelligence sources maintain that North Korea can still access its underground testing site, another test, especially a more powerful one, could blow the lid off entirely. So despite the obvious dangers, besides North Korea’s own propaganda, there are reasons to think they may test over the Pacific.
If North Korea failed to contain an underground test, the radioactive material could leak out and spread across the border to China, which Town said Beijing would see “as an attack on China.”
The ultimate brinksmanship
While the US acknowledges North Korea’s possession of ICBMs and nuclear weapons, North Korea has never demonstrated its ability to combine the two.
It’s one thing to launch a rocket very high and imply it could travel very far. It’s another thing to attach a nuclear device, have it survive the incredible heat and pressure of reentering the earth’s atmosphere at many times the speed of sound, and work properly by detonating at a set time.
For North Korea, a test over the Pacific would demonstrate that they have indeed mastered some of the more intricate work needed for a credible nuclear force.
If an ICBM test brings the US to the brink of war with North Korea, a nuclear detonation above the Pacific may just tip the scale.
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