North Korea’s apparently successful test-firing Sunday of a new intermediate-range ballistic missile points to a significant advance in the reclusive nation’s goal of mastering the technology needed to hit the continental United States with a long-range, nuclear-tipped missile, experts said Monday.
The North bragged earlier Monday in a report carried by state media that the test had been aimed at verifying its capability of carrying “a large-size heavy nuclear warhead.” The launch of the new missile, referred to as the Hwasong-12, was overseen by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said in a dispatch.
“The test-fire was conducted at the highest angle in consideration of the security of neighboring countries,” the report said, adding that it had been “aimed at verifying the tactical and technological specifications of the newly-developed ballistic rocket capable of carrying a large-size heavy nuclear warhead.”
It said the missile had traveled 787 km after hitting an altitude of 2,111.5 km (1,312 miles).
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga acknowledged that the launch “indicated a certain degree of technological development,” but stressed that the government was still analyzing the launch. “Based on (our estimates), we can consider the possibility that this was a new type of ballistic missile.
“We have long said that the threat from North Korea has entered a new stage,” Suga added.
On Sunday, the Defense Ministry said the missile was believed to be a “new type” that had flown for about 30 minutes, reaching an altitude of more than 2,000 km (1,245 miles). It was likely conducted at a steep “lofted” trajectory, hitting the highest-ever altitude recorded by the ministry.
Last month, the North put dozens of missiles on show during a massive military parade through central Pyongyang, including one that appeared to be the type of device launched Sunday.
“North Korea’s latest successful missile test represents a level of performance never before seen from a North Korean missile,” aerospace engineer John Schilling wrote Monday on the influential 38 North blog run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Schilling said that while the new missile’s “performance doesn’t quite reach ICBM standards it clearly shares a common heritage with the KN-08 ICBM,” a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, mock-ups of which were first displayed in 2012. That missile is believed to be under development by the North.
“This is not that missile but it might be a test bed, demonstrating technologies and systems to be used in future ICBMs,” he said.
According to Schilling, the missile would have flown a distance of some 4,500 km if launched on a maximum trajectory, enabling Pyongyang “to reliably strike” U.S. sites on Guam, some 3,400 km from North Korea.
The KCNA dispatch also said the test-firing “proved to the full all the technical specifications” of that missile “and reconfirmed the reliability” of a new rocket engine “under the practical flight circumstances.”
David Schmerler, a researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, said the missile may have employed an indigenously built high-powered engine that the North showed off in March. Kim called that engine test a “great event of historic significance.”
The launch also “verified the homing feature of the warhead under the worst re-entry situation and accurate performance of detonation system,” the KCNA report said.
This, Schmerler said, could mean that the warhead can adjust its course to hit a designated target. He also said the reference to the “large-size heavy nuclear warhead” may be an attempt by Pyongyang to convey improvements in their payload capabilities.
“I think they are trying to say this missile packs a bigger punch,” Schmerler said.
In what was likely an oblique reference to the United States, the KCNA report, quoting Kim, said that the North Korean leader had “declared that the DPRK is a nuclear power worthy of the name whether some one recognizes it or not.”
DPRK is the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“The most perfect weapon systems in the world will never become the eternal exclusive property of the U.S.,” Kim added.
The “U.S. had better see clearly whether the ballistic rockets of the DPRK pose an actual threat to it or not,” the North Korean leader said.
“If the U.S. awkwardly attempts to provoke the DPRK, it will not escape from the biggest disaster in the history,” Kim added, warning Washington “not to disregard or misjudge the reality that its mainland and Pacific operation region are in the DPRK’s sighting range” for a strike.
Pyongyang has long sought recognition as a “legitimate nuclear weapons state,” and is believed to currently possess between 10-20 atomic bombs. Some analysts say it could have an arsenal of some 100 warheads by 2020.
Washington has long resisted recognizing the country as a nuclear power, instead working to rein in Pyongyang’s atomic ambitions — a challenge that has flummoxed multiple occupants of the White House.
For his part, U.S. President Donald Trump has called the North’s nuclear and missile programs one of Washington’s top foreign policy concerns.
The latest test is likely to further complicate his push to pile “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang.
The launch is also an immediate challenge to South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, a liberal elected last week who — like Trump — has expressed a desire to reach out to North Korea.
Trump has vacillated between the possibility of military action against the North and negotiations with the country’s leader, saying he would be “honored” to meet Kim — even labeling him a “smart cookie.”
But Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the latest test shows Kim is “in a state of paranoia” and that Washington will “continue to tighten the screws” on his regime.
Youngshik Daniel Bong, a research fellow at Yonsei University’s Institute for North Korean Studies in South Korea, said that in the short term, this launch was likely an attempt to test the resolve of the new government in Seoul while also driving a wedge between South Korea and the U.S. over how best to approach Pyongyang prior to any Moon-Trump summit.
Bong, however, said if that was the North’s intention, the missile test could prove counterproductive.
“It might have forced the Moon government to decide to hold any planned initiatives to thaw the current tensions on the Korean Peninsula until there is a clear sign that North Korea will not conduct another major provocation,” he said.