North Korea launched what appears to be an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). We will need to wait for more specific details, but initial reports suggest that it flew to a height of about 3000 miles but only about 500 miles from the launch site. The trajectory suggests that the North Koreans were primarily interested in the re-entry process–an important detail to determine whether a warhead could survive the heat of re-entry into the atmosphere. The trajectory also suggests that the possible range of the missile could be quite extensive, possibly even to the east coast of the United States. The missile was also apparently launched around 3:00 am in North Korea, a timing that hints that the North Koreans are interested in launching missiles when overhead satellites might not be able to pick up images of a launch preparation.
The launch comes after two months of quiet. North Korean testing has historically tapered off at the end of the calendar ear, but many analysts had been hoping that the period of relative quiet suggested perhaps a new North Korean attitude, perhaps because of US threats or Chinese pressure. Those explanations may be partially true, but there is no way for us to know. President Trump issued a very low-key response to the test, saying that the US would “handle it”. It is difficult to interpret the statement, but the ratcheting down of rhetoric is perhaps important. President Trump also consulted with South Korean President Moon so it seems probable that the two allies are coordinating their responses.
What is unknown is the extent to which President Trump considers such tests to be the essential “red line” in terms of a threat to the US homeland. His previous statements indicate that he thinks that allowing the US homeland to be at risk of a North Korean nuclear attack is completely unacceptable. This test indicates that North Korea is very close to that red line, perhaps one that will crossed definitively next year at the latest. Thus, the question is how much lead time President Trump believes he has until he invokes a preventive strike to foreclose that option to North Korea. If and when such a strike occurs, the US will classify the strike as “pre-emptive”. It is important to keep in mind that a pre-emptive strike only exists in the context of an imminent attack by an enemy. I doubt very much that North Korea has any intention of attacking the US homeland–such a attack would be an invitation to suicide. Thus, a US strike to deny the North Koreans from developing the capability to hit the US homeland in the absence of an imminent attack must be classified as a preventive strike. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans are split on the justification for a pre-emptive strike. The Just War tradition does not support a preventive strike.