North Korea announced Wednesday that it had completed its goal of becoming a nuclear state after test-firing a powerful new intercontinental ballistic missile that it said puts the entire United States within striking distance.
The fresh challenge to the U.S. and Japan saw the North launch what was apparently its longest-range missile to date after a hiatus of 10 weeks, injecting new uncertainty into the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
In a special televised announcement, North Korea said it had “successfully carried out” a launch of the newly developed Hwasong-15 ICBM, which it said is “capable of striking the whole mainland of the U.S.”
It said the missile had soared to an altitude of 4,475 km, flying a distance of 950 km.
In a government statement run by state media, the North said that leader Kim Jong Un had observed the launch, calling it the culmination of the country’s nuclear weapons program.
“After watching the successful launch of the new type ICBM Hwasong-15, Kim Jong Un declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.
The North also lashed out at what it said was Washington’s “nuclear blackmail policy” and pointedly claimed that its own nuclear weapons program is not a threat to its neighbors.
“The development and advancement of the strategic weapon of the DPRK are to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country from the U.S. imperialists’ nuclear blackmail policy and nuclear threat, and to ensure the peaceful life of the people, and therefore, they would not pose any threat to any country and region as long as the interests of the DPRK are not infringed upon,” it said, using the formal name for the North.
Reacting to the launch, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe blasted it as “absolutely intolerable” and called for an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting.
“We will never yield to any provocative act. We will maximize our pressure” on Pyongyang, Abe said.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Robert Manning said the missile had been launched from the city of Sain-ni, just north of Pyongyang, and had traveled about 1,000 km (620 miles) before landing in the Sea of Japan.
“Initial assessment indicates that this missile was an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Manning said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis offered a starker assessment of the launch.
“It went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken, a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten everywhere in the world, basically,” Mattis was quoted as saying.
In Tokyo, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told the Diet that the missile had hit a record-high altitude of “well over” 4,000 km (2,400 miles) — an altitude that he had earlier said ICBMs can reach. The ministry believes the missile has “tremendous” power, he added.
Onodera earlier said the missile was launched on a “lofted” trajectory — steep and high but not far. “We can assume it was ICBM-class,” he said.
He later said the Defense Ministry was looking into the possibility that it could have been of a “multi-stage type” missile.
The Defense Ministry reported that the missile had been launched around 3:18 a.m. and flew for about 50 minutes before landing inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Abe, speaking to the Upper House of the Diet later in the day, asserted that Tokyo had a “complete grasp” of the missile’s movement throughout its travel.
Following an emergency teleconference with U.S. President Donald Trump soon after the launch, Abe said that Tokyo and Washington had agreed China has a bigger role to play in reining in Pyongyang and that the allies will further boost cooperation with South Korea in forming a united front against the regime.
China, the North’s sole major ally, expressed “grave concern” at the test, while urging all sides to act cautiously.
The launch was North Korea’s first since it lobbed an intermediate-range missile over Hokkaido on Sept. 15, and could diminish any room the hiatus had created for a diplomatic approach to reining in the country’s nuclear program. Top U.S. officials have at times appeared to back the idea of direct talks with Pyongyang if it halts its tests of missiles and nuclear bombs.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “The United States strongly condemns North Korea’s launch of what is likely an intercontinental ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan, indiscriminately threatening its neighbors, the region and global stability.”
Tillerson said the U.S. and its allies “must continue to send a unified message” to the North that it “must abandon its WMD programs,” but he also noted that a doorway to talks remains open despite the test.
“Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now,” Tillerson said. “The United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearization and to ending belligerent actions by North Korea.”
But Abe, speaking before the Diet, doubled down on his policy of heaping pressure on Pyongyang and claimed that the world should not succumb to fears that Pyongyang may resort to military action in response.
“North Korea has always kept the upper hand in diplomacy by tapping into the global community’s fear it could run reckless if pressured too hard — which is actually its biggest diplomatic leverage,” Abe said.
This is how, he said, the regime won promises of massive financial assistance from countries, including Japan, under the Agreed Framework with Washington in 1994, for example, in exchange for a pledge to eliminate its nuclear weapons program. But the regime reneged on its vow and further ramped up its uranium enrichment program, Abe said.
“If we back down to avoid them running reckless, that would be exactly what they want,” Abe said. “North Korea is actually very strategic.”
Abe also sought to emphasize that his approach to diplomacy has been paying off.
Noting he had recently held bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Abe said their agreement to the latest round of U.N. Security Council resolutions against Pyongyang points to their commitment to the “maximum pressure” tactics pursued by Japan and the U.S.
“China, for instance, shares the position with us that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development is intolerable, although it’s true that their approach to the matter is different from ours,” Abe said, referring to Beijing’s preference for dialogue over pressure. “But China and Russia did agree to strict sanctions led by the U.N. in September, thanks to our diplomatic effort.”
Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Wednesday’s test-firing made it clear that Pyongyang had spent the past two months “steadily preparing for a next missile launch,” laying bare the “lack of its intention to stop” its military provocations.
The North, however, appeared to say that the tests could slow as it masters the technology needed to fit a warhead on a missile capable of striking the U.S.
It said Wednesday’s missile, which it claimed was tipped with a “super-large heavy warhead,” was far more advanced “in its tactical and technological specifications and technical characteristics” than two Hwasong-14 ICBMs it tested earlier this year.
“It is the most powerful ICBM,” the North said, and “meets the goal of the completion of the rocket weaponry system development set by the DPRK.”
David Wright, a physicist with the Union for Concerned Scientists in the United States, said that based on the initial numbers, the Hwasong-15 was likely to be Pyongyang’s longest-range test to date.
“If these numbers are correct, then if flown on a standard trajectory rather than this lofted trajectory, this missile would have a range of more than 13,000 km (8,100 miles),” Wright said. “This is significantly longer than North Korea’s previous long-range tests, which flew on lofted trajectories for 37 minutes (July 4) and 47 minutes (July 28).”
Wright said such a missile “would have more than enough range to reach Washington, D.C., and in fact any part of the continental United States.”
He cautioned, however, that the payload involved in the test was unknown, though he said it was likely a “very light mock warhead.”
“If true, that means it would be incapable of carrying a nuclear warhead to this long distance, since such a warhead would be much heavier,” he said.
The test is likely to be seen by Washington as especially provocative.
Trump has vowed to halt the North’s seemingly inexorable march toward a credible ICBM capability, vowing to use military force if necessary.
In curt remarks after the test, Trump said the United States will “take care of it.” He told reporters, “It is a situation that we will handle.” He did not elaborate, but the White House press secretary said on Twitter that Trump had been “briefed, while (the) missile was still in the air, on the situation in North Korea.”
In Seoul, media reports quoted South Korean President Moon Jae-in as saying that the launch had been anticipated and the government had been preparing for it. There was no choice but for countries to keep applying pressure and sanctions against North Korea, he said.
“The situation could get out of control if North Korea perfects its ICBM technology,” Moon said, according to the Blue House after a national security council meeting.
“North Korea shouldn’t miscalculate the situation and threaten South Korea with a nuclear weapon, which could elicit a possible pre-emptive strike by the United States,” Moon added.
South Korea, a key U.S. ally separated from the North by a highly militarized border, responded within minutes to the launch with shorter-range missile tests of its own, reports said. The “precision-strike” drill fired three missiles, including one with a 1,000-km range, and accurately hit a mock target designed to mimic the North Korean launch site.
Last week, the Trump administration relisted North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, further straining ties between the two countries, which are still technically at war. Washington also slapped new sanctions on North Korean shipping firms and Chinese trading companies dealing with the Pyongyang.
North Korea blasted the terrorist designation as a “serious provocation,” claiming that the move justifies its nuclear weapons program.