It is worth noting that at least one other country has never fully tested its ICBM capabilities: the United States.
Yep, that's right, we've never put a nuclear warhead on an ICBM and fired it the full distance. In the 1960s, we had a big debate about this in the United States. Here is how a 1961 Senate Armed Services Committee report explained the situation:
Who knows whether an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead will actually work? Each of the constituent elements has been tested, it is true. Each of them, however, has not been tested under circumstances which would be attendant upon the firing of such a missile in anger. By this the committee means an intercontinental ballistic missile will carry its nuclear warhead to great heights subjecting it to intense cold. It will then arch down and upon reentering the earth's atmosphere subject the nuclear warhead to intense heat. Who knows what will happen to the many delicate mechanisms involved in the nuclear warhead as it is subjected to these two extremes of temperature?
(I am indebted to Donald Mackenzie for digging up this gem and publishing it in Inventing Accuracy.)
Ultimately, the United States conducted a partial demonstration -- something called Operation Frigate Bird. Frigate Bird was the only time the United States fired a live nuclear warhead on a ballistic trajectory. (There was also a series of high-altitude nuclear explosions where the warheads only went up.)
This didn't settle the issue. Barry Goldwater actually campaigned in 1964 warning that absent a full test "we are building a Maginot line of missiles." He explained in Where I Stand: "The fact is that not one of our advanced ICBMs has ever been subjected to a full test (of all component systems, including warheads) under simulated battle conditions."
At some point, everyone realized that this was an insane conversation to be having and it just sort of went away.
The Chinese had the same concern about their nuclear program in the 1960s. Initially they tried driving their warheads over bumpy roads in trucks, trying to simulate the shock and vibrations of flight on a missile. (How would you like to be a Chinese teamster?)
Ultimately, the Chinese decided to conduct an operationally realistic test. They put a live nuclear weapon on a DF-2 ballistic missile and fired it across China. What could possibly have gone wrong?
Which brings me back to North Korea.
Why are we demanding that they show us each and every little increment of progress?
Do we really want them to put a live nuclear warhead on a Musudan and fire it
over Japan just to shut us up? The North Koreans have preferred to test
underground -- whether to deny the United States intelligence about their
weapons program or out of some heretofore undetected concern for the
One of the reasons Clapper was reluctant to share more information about North Korea's miniaturization program was that he wanted to avoid "further enhancement of Kim Jong Un's narrative" -- something that strikes me as a pretty lousy reason. Let's not fool ourselves. The North Koreans have said they have miniaturized a warhead, which is certainly plausible given that they've taken three shots at it.
For what it is worth, I believe the takeaway ought to be not that the harmless North Koreans can never do these things, but that they can and will continue to build a larger, more sophisticated arsenal until we make it worth their while to do something else with their limited resources.
Double-dog daring them to prove it, on the other hand, is not helpful.