Ability to strike more of U.S. feared as North Korean ICBM test splashes down off Hokkaido

by and

Staff Writers

North Korea test-fired its second intercontinental ballistic missile in less than a month late Friday, with experts concluding that the launch flew higher and longer than the first and now puts a large chunk of the United States — including Chicago and Los Angeles — within range of Pyongyang’s ever-improving weapons systems.

Japan’s Defense Ministry said the missile, launched at 11:42 p.m. Friday from Mupyong-ni, around 60 kilometers (37 miles) from North Korea’s border with China, reached an estimated height of more than 3,500 km and traveled about 1,000 km, landing inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, some 150 km northwest of Okushiri Island, a tiny islet about 18 km off the coast of Hokkaido.

The rare nighttime launch was fired on a very high or “lofted” trajectory, which limited the distance it traveled.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the missile flew for about 45 minutes, a flight that would put it about five minutes longer than the North’s first test of its ICBM, known as the Hwasong-14, on July 4.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observed the second test, which he said had shown the country now had the ability to launch a surprise attack on the entire United States, state media reported.

“The test-fire reconfirmed the reliability of ICBM system, demonstrated the capability of making surprise launch of ICBM in any region and place any time, and clearly proved that the whole U.S. mainland is in the firing range of the DPRK missiles,” the official Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as saying in a dispatch.

The report said that Kim had expressed “great satisfaction” after the missile hit a maximum height of 3,725 km and traveled 998 km before accurately landing in waters off Japan. KCNA said the test was aimed at confirming the maximum range and other technical aspects of the missile it claimed was capable of delivering a “large-sized, heavy nuclear warhead.”

DPRK is the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

KCNA quoted Kim as saying Friday’s test was meant “to send a grave warning to the U.S. making senseless remarks, being lost to reason,” with the North Korean leader adding that “this would make the policymakers of the U.S. properly understand that the U.S., an aggression-minded state, would not go scot-free if it dares provoke the DPRK.

“If the Yankees brandish the nuclear stick on this land again despite our repeated warnings, we will clearly teach them manners with the nuclear strategic force,” Kim said.

In a statement, the Pentagon assessed that the missile was an ICBM — “as had been expected.”

While analysts had said the July 4 ICBM test could have struck parts of Alaska, some experts said the latest launch had significantly expanded the range.

David Wright, co-director of the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said that based on the current information, the missile “could easily reach the U.S. West Coast and a number of major U.S. cities.”

Assuming the height and distance traveled are correct, he said, the missile would have a maximum range of about 10,400 km if flown on a standard trajectory.

“Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago appear to be well within range of this missile, and Boston and New York may be just within range,” Wright said. “Washington, D.C., may be just out of range.”

However, he cautioned that this was dependent on a number of variables, including the size and weight of the warhead that would be carried atop the missile.

A senior Japanese defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, echoed this sentiment, telling The Japan Times that a number of variables at play — including thrust, speed and payload — made it a challenge to determine not only the potential range of the missile, but also if missile defense systems could intercept one headed for Japanese territory.

The North has unleashed a spate of missile tests in recent years, including 13 this year, according to a database compiled by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has characterized Pyongyang’s frequent missile tests as “a new level of threat” and vowed Saturday to tackle the issue.

“In defiance of the international community’s strong protest and warning, North Korea again launched a ballistic missile,” Abe said after convening a National Security Council meeting. “We strongly protest against North Korea and condemn this in the harshest words.

“As long as North Korea continues with this kind of provocative action, there is no other choice than to work closely with the United States and South Korea, as well as with countries including China and Russia, and the international community, while further bolstering pressure” on the reclusive country.

Suga said Tokyo had immediately filed a protest with Pyongyang, denouncing the firing as a “clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.”

The test also came at an uncertain time for the Abe administration as it reels from the resignation a day earlier of defense chief Tomomi Inada, who had been ensnared in an alleged cover-up of daily activity reports from Ground Self-Defense Force troops on a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has been asked by Abe to temporarily assume the defense portfolio in addition to his other duties.

He said later Saturday that the missile “appeared similar” to the model fired on July 4, lending credence to the possibility that it was one and the same.

In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump blasted the Kim regime for its “latest reckless and dangerous action.”

Trump condemned the test and said that the North’s weapons and tests “further isolate North Korea, weaken its economy, and deprive its people.”

The United States, he said “will take all necessary steps” to ensure the security of the U.S. and its allies.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also lambasted the test as “a blatant violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions” and urged all nations to “take a strong public stance against North Korea.”

Tillerson had especially strong words for Beijing and Moscow, singling the two out as “enablers” of the Kim regime.

“As the principal economic enablers of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development program, China and Russia bear unique and special responsibility for this growing threat to regional and global stability,” he said.

China is the North’s sole ally and economic lifeline, while Russian trade with the poverty-stricken country has soared amid rising tensions.

“As we and others have made clear, we will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea nor abandon our commitment to our allies and partners in the region,” Tillerson added.

Friday’s test also prompted U.S. and South Korean military officials to discuss military response options, with the two countries’ later in the morning conducting a joint live-fire ballistic missile exercise. South Korea’s joint chiefs said the display of firepower showed their capabilities for a “precise strike on the enemy’s leadership,” the South’s Yonhap news agency reported.

In a statement, South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo also said the U.S. military would deploy “strategic assets” to the Korean Peninsula in response to the ICBM test.

“South Korea and the U.S. jointly fired surface-to-surface missiles, and will have strategic assets deployed (on the peninsula),” Yonhap quoted Song as saying. He did not elaborate on what assets would be deployed.

Strategic assets generally refer to high-profile weapons systems, including stealth bombers and aircraft carriers.

Shortly after the launch, South Korean President Moon Jae-in ordered an “alliance move” for the installation of four more Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) launchers stored at a southern U.S. military compound in the country, the presidential Blue House said.

This represented a sharp reversal of Moon’s earlier stance that U.S. Forces Korea must wait until the completion of an environmental impact assessment that was not expected to wrap up for several months.

Yonhap quoted South Korean officials as saying it would be a temporary or “field” deployment.

As for Japan, Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia, said the Abe administration’s current political situation had left Tokyo in a poor position to effectively respond to North Korean provocations.

“Inada’s departure and Abe’s broader political difficulties … leaves Japan ill-equipped to react,” said Graham, who also served as a British diplomat in Pyongyang.

Beyond Inada’s resignation and a number of gaffes by a handful of Cabinet members, the prime minister himself is also grappling with his own favoritism scandals that have seen his support rate plummet.

But despite the inopportune timing, Graham said the launch had highlighted an increasingly clear reality for Tokyo.

“Japan is a front-line state — perhaps the front-line missile target for the DPRK in a war,” Graham said.

“People in the Japanese system already understand this,” Graham said. “They will be worried how the Japanese public reacts, especially as the missile re-entry was visible from Hokkaido.”

Graham was referring to a report earlier Saturday by public broadcaster NHK that several cameras in western Hokkaido had spotted a ball of light descending from the sky at 12:28 a.m., around the time when the missile was believed to be splashing down into the Sea of Japan.

The report could not be independently verified.

According to Graham, Abe could use the looming threat to seek a so-called conventional strike capability for Japan, something that could include the acquisition of cruise missiles and precision munitions for its new F-35 fighter jets — or at least stoke debate about the issue.

“It’s tricky for him, as the electorate will suspect … Abe of using North Korea to distract from scandal and rally support behind a security ‘crisis,’ ” Graham said, noting that the ICBM test could make the North Korean missile threat less abstract to the Japanese public “once (the missiles are) literally in plain view.”