North Korea's New ICBM: A 21st-Century Spruce Goose? | Opinion

For a nation where nearly 60 percent of citizens are on the verge of starvation, North Korea knows how to shift the media narrative away from its existential internal weaknesses to its ability to project power around the globe. Its regime used this weekend's military parade to showcase a growing nuclear capability that could kill millions of people at a moment's notice.

But are we drinking a little too much of the Pyongyang kool-aid these days? To be sure, North Korea caught many analysts, including myself, off-guard by testing a long-range missile, or ICBM, in 2017. But are we now buying into a North Korean nuclear narrative that is shaped more by high-resolution images that go viral on social media than actual fact-based analysis?

You have to admire North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un's media mastery. The son of an amateur movie director (yes, daddy dictator Kim Jong-il), the current Kim has carefully crafted a public image reboot that culminated with this weekend's parade. Pyongyang unveiled its biggest, most powerful long-range missile experts are now calling the Hwasong-16—a new intercontinental ballistic missile that, judging by its massive size, many analysts fear could shower the U.S. with multiple nuclear warheads and defeat U.S. missile defense systems.

While all of that sounds quite scary indeed, the facts lend themselves to a more complicated analysis. North Korea's new missile, while a threat of clear significance on paper, does have some serious problems it simply can't overcome. This new weapon is more of a 21st-century version of the Spruce Goose—the massive military transport plane Howard Hughes built for service during World War II that would only take to the skies ever so briefly only once. While easy on the eyes and packed with technological innovations to inspire other aircraft designers, it was just too massive to have any sort of utility—an odd place in military history that North Korea's new Hwasong-16 may soon share.

In many respects, the flaws in this new missile are there for all to see. There are three specific problems that suggest this missile was never meant to be a deployable military asset in the first place, but a technological demonstrator to experiment with to build towards future weapons. There is also the possibility that the Hwasong-16 is just a newly minted bargaining chip to use in future negotiations with a future Biden or second-term Trump administration.

Kim Jong-Un
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un before a meeting with US President Donald Trump on the south side of the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) on June 30, 2019. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

The first problem is that, since the missile is deployed on a massive mobile truck, or transport-erector launcher—with many calling it the largest road-mobile missile ever built—its size is a liability, not an asset. Such a weapon should be able to be moved around to avoid being destroyed on the ground in a preemptive attack. However, this new weapon is so big, it likely would have a hard time moving around on North Korean roads, many of which are dirt or poorly paved. In fact, even the best roads in North Korea would be challenged under the weight of this beast. Clearly the missile would not have the ability to travel very far, and could only move in places with good infrastructure, allowing the U.S. and intelligence agencies to hone in on its potential operating areas for intelligence gathering or even a potential attack.

Then there is the fuel the missile uses: a liquid-based system, which should be a disappointment, as even the White House thought North Korea would show the world something far more advanced. Use of such fuel means the weapon cannot sit in a ready-to-fire mode, unlike the newer and generally more advanced solid-based fuel missile system operated by nations such as Russia and China. That means North Korea cannot use these weapons at a moment's notice in a retaliatory manner if attacked by surprise, and would need somewhere between 12 and 18 hours to fuel. This limits the Hwasong-16's offensive military capability in countless war-fighting scenarios.

Kim also has another problem with this missile that won't be easily solvable: trying to test it will come at a very high cost. While North Korea has already walked away from a moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests, Kim likely understands that any ICBM test could restart a chain of events that nearly brought us to the brink of armed conflict—especially if Donald Trump were to win reelection.

This point can't be understated. It was long-range missile testing that focused the world's attention on the North Korean nuclear threat in 2017. The images of long-range missiles taking to the sky on the Fourth of July that year forced the U.S. to come to grips with the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea. Pyongyang's first ICBM test put in clear view nearly three decades of failure to stop a threat that was right before our eyes.

Another such test would, at the very least, trigger another round of international sanctions at a time when North Korea is suffering from agricultural shortages, the aftermath of three typhoons and fears of a coronavirus outbreak. And if Trump is in office during a test, he would surely feel personally insulted that his "friend" Kim has betrayed him, potentially going back to his "fire and fury" rhetoric and nuclear threats of the past.

The good news, if there is such a thing when it comes to North Korea, is that Kim seems to be keeping his missiles cold for the time being. As he is surely waiting to see who he will be dealing with come November 3, it seems likely North Korea has wanted to issue the best reminder it can that its nuclear arsenal is expanding with each passing day—and parading this missile down the streets of Pyongyang certainly accomplished that. But as a usable asset in a time of war, size in this case does matter—and not in a good way.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by President Richard M. Nixon, and is a contributing editor for 19FortyFive.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.