Any travelers waiting for the few flights out of Pyongyang International Airport early on August 29 were treated to the spectacle of a North Korean intermediate-range missile blasting off only a few miles beyond the runways. Just before six in the morning, a Hwasong-12 missile, also known as the KN-17, with a purported range of nearly four thousand miles, arced northeastward over North Korea and the Sea of Japan. Eight minutes later, it passed over Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four home islands. Roughly six minutes after that, and approximately 730 miles east of Hokkaido, it broke apart and fell into the Pacific Ocean.
If the trajectory of the KN-17 had been a little more northerly, and had it broken up a few minutes earlier, it could have rained rocket debris down on Sapporo, Japan’s fifth-largest city, with a population of two million. Like many North Korean rocket tests, this one ended in structural failure, a reminder that Pyongyang has not yet perfected its missile technology. While that may give temporary solace to those worrying about North Korea’s nuclear capability, it serves as a warning about perhaps the most serious threat posed by Kim Jong-un’s nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal: its safety.
Perhaps the world should worry less about the threat of a North Korean-instigated nuclear war and more about the risk of a nuclear accident. The most frightening question raised by Kim Jong-un’s pursuit of the ultimate weapon is also the simplest: Can he control his nukes?