Missile Wars: Where North Korea stands after ICBM launch

This July 4, 2017, file photo, distributed by the North Korean government shows what was said to be the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in North Korea's northwest. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

TOKYO (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is on the cusp of having something his father and grandfather could only dream of — the ability to unleash a nuclear attack on the United States.

For anyone paying attention, the test launch of his country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile on the Fourth of July came as little surprise.

He has been racing to develop better and longer-range missiles and vowed this would be the year of the ICBM in his annual New Year’s address. He made good on that vow with the launch of the “Hwasong-14.”

But that isn’t all he’s been doing.

Here’s a quick primer.

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CLOSING THE GAP:

North Korea’s newest missile is called the Hwasong-14. Hwasong means “Mars.”

In this July 4, 2017, file photo distributed by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second from right, inspects the preparation of the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in North Korea’s northwest. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

Experts believe the two-stage, liquid-fuel missile gives Kim the capability of reaching most of Alaska and possibly Hawaii. Some experts add Seattle and San Francisco. North Korea’s missiles aren’t very accurate, so big, soft targets like cities are what they would be aimed at.

Big caveat: Kim’s technicians still have a lot of work to do.

It’s not clear if this missile could be scaled up to reach targets beyond Alaska, like New York or Washington. Reliability is also a big issue that requires years of testing to resolve. And that liquid fuel makes the missile a sitting duck while it’s being readied for launch.

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DIVERSIFYING THE ARSENAL:

Along with a record number of tests, 17 this year alone, Kim has revealed a surprising array of missiles — Harpoon-style anti-ship missiles, beefed up Scuds, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and missiles that use solid fuel, which makes them easier to hide and harder to destroy.

Missiles are paraded across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade Saturday, April 15, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea, to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the country’s late founder and grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

David Wright, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said heightened activity over the past 18 months suggests Kim decided a couple of years ago to speed up and diversify.

The takeaway: North Korea is well on its way toward a fine-tuned arsenal of missiles that can strike South Korea, Japan and the United States.

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PUSHING THE ENVELOPE:

What’s next?

More sanctions, almost certainly. U.S. President Donald Trump claimed “severe things” could be in the offing. The U.S. has circulated a new list of sanctions in the U.N. Security Council and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley put the world, and especially China, “on notice” if it doesn’t toe Washington’s line.

China, North Korea’s economic lifeline, has reduced its imports from the North, including a cutoff of coal purchases. It appears to still be selling lots of goods to North Korea, which may anger some sanctions advocates but generates a huge trade deficit that could spell destabilizing inflation for the North if left unchecked.

Soldiers march across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade on Saturday, April 15, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the country’s late founder and grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

North Korea, meanwhile, needs to improve its nuclear warhead technology. Its Punggye-ri underground nuclear test site has been on standby for months. So a test is fairly likely. And there will be more launches.

As Kim put it, expect lots more “gift packages, big and small” for Washington.

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Talmadge is the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter at EricTalmadge. His photos of North Korea are on Instagram at erictalmadge.