In a move expected to have far-reaching implications — including for Japan — North Korea proclaimed a successful launch of its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Tuesday that it said “can strike any place in the world.”
North Korean state-run television said the missile, known as the Hwasong-14, reached an altitude of 2,800 km and hit a target after flying 933 km. It said the test had been overseen by leader Kim Jong Un.
State-run TV said the launch — which came as Americans prepared to mark Independence Day in the U.S. — was of “a very powerful ICBM that can strike any place in the world” and was “a major breakthrough in the history of our country.”
The numbers reported by state media were in line with projections by Japan’s Defense Ministry, which said the missile, launched from North Korea’s west coast, flew for about 40 minutes.
The launch, which occurred at around 9:39 a.m., was conducted on a steep “lofted” trajectory, according to a high-ranking Japanese official.
The U.S. Pacific Command said in a statement ahead of the announcement that it had detected and tracked the launch of what it called an “intermediate range ballistic missile” near Panghyon Airfield in North Pyongan Province, near the border with China.
“The missile was tracked for 37 minutes and landed in the Sea of Japan,” the statement said. Tokyo said it had landed in its exclusive economic zone.
According to the North’s report, the lofted launch had been conducted “in consideration of neighboring nations” — a statement usually seen as referring to Japan.
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said Japan was “analyzing” the North’s ICBM claims.
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe railed against Pyongyang over its latest in a string of missile tests.
“North Korea again dared to launch a ballistic missile, ignoring repeated warnings from the international community,” Abe told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office.
“The missile launch this time has clearly shown that the (North Korean) threat has further increased,” Abe said.
Abe said he will meet U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit meetings scheduled to kick off July 7 in Hamburg, Germany. Abe plans to depart Japan on Wednesday to attend G-20 events.
Together with the U.S. and South Korea, he said Japan would join the international community in piling even more pressure on the North.
“I will also ask (Chinese) President Xi Jinping and (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin to respond in a more constructive way,” he added.
David Wright, co-director of the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said that if the time and distance are correct, the missile could have a possible maximum range of 6,700 km — a range that would put Alaska in striking distance of the North if fired at a normal trajectory.
“Technically, an ICBM is considered any missile with a range greater than 5,500 km, so if this range estimate is right, this would be considered an ICBM,” Wright told The Japan Times. “It would still fall short of reaching the lower 48 states, however.”
Doubts remain about whether the North has mastered the technology needed to mount a small enough nuclear warhead onto the tip of a long-range missile. There are also questions over any warhead’s ability to survive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
But the threat of a nuclear-tipped long-range North Korean missile that could threaten U.S. cities is likely to stoke alarm in Tokyo.
Experts say such a feat could play into the hands of Pyongyang as it seeks to divide U.S. allies in the region.
“North Korea’s objective is to split the alliances and decouple the U.S. from its allies in East Asia,” said Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at Troy University in Seoul.
“Any North Korean theory of victory in a military conflict on the peninsula would require the exclusion of U.S. participation in the conflict,” Pinkston said. “North Korea has been trying to effect a U.S. withdrawal from East Asia through diplomacy for decades. Now they have another instrument they could employ to try to prevent U.S. intervention in support of its treaty allies.”
But while Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear successes may prompt Japan to wonder if Washington would be willing to sacrifice Tokyo for Los Angeles in any nuclear exchange, Pinkston said it was important to remember the view from North Korea as well.
“It cuts both ways,” he said. “People need to ask the North Korean leadership if they want to sacrifice their whole country for Los Angeles.”
Earlier, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga lambasted the launch as a “clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.”
Japan will “never tolerate repeated provocations” by the North, which has continued to test-fire dozens of ballistic missiles in recent years as they seek more precise launches,” Suga told a news conference.
“We’ve filed strong protest” against the launch with the North Korean government, he added.
Japan’s Coast Guard also issued a warning for ships in the Sea of Japan, urging them not to approach any possible North Korean missile wreckage.
Trump had said early this year that Pyongyang’s quest to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States would not happen on his watch.
Late Monday night in Washington, Trump blasted Kim on Twitter over the latest test-firing, asking: “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?”
The U.S. leader also appeared to say in a series of tweets that Tokyo and Seoul had reached the limits of their patience, while also continuing to urge Beijing to heap pressure on Pyongyang.
“Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer,” he wrote. “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
Trump has pinned much of his administration’s North Korea strategy on China, though he has in recent days appeared to distance himself from this policy.
Beijing slammed Tuesday’s launch as a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“Related UNSC resolutions have clear rules on North Korea’s ballistic missile technology and activities of (ballistic missile) launches,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
“China opposes North Korea’s continuation of (ballistic missile) activities in violation of these rules,” he added.
Geng also urged Pyongyang “not to come in breach of UNSC resolutions again and fulfill the pre-conditions for resuming talks.”
The test was the North’s 13th missile launch of the year, according to data compiled by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California.
Shea Cotton, a researcher at the center, said Tuesday’s test was likely deliberately timed to coincide with Independence Day in the United States.
“It’s already 4th of July in North Korea,” he wrote on Twitter. “I somewhat suspect they’re shooting off some fireworks today specifically because of that.”
Media reports last month citing unidentified U.S. officials said that the North had carried out a rocket engine test that the United States believed could be part of its program to develop a long-range missile. The reports said Washington had assessed that the test could be for the smallest stage of an ICBM.
In March, North Korea heralded the successful development of a new, indigenously built “high-thrust engine.” In an ominous warning, Kim appeared to indicate that this test was of an engine for a long-range rocket.
“The whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won today carries,” state media quoted Kim as saying at the time.
In September, the North also announced a successful ground test of what experts said was its most powerful engine to date.