North Korea has launched what is thought to be its largest intercontinental ballistic missile to date, according to military officials in Japan and South Korea, in what would be the regime’s most serious provocation for years.
South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said it had detected the launch of an “unidentified projectile” from North Korea on Thursday afternoon. South Korea said the launch was assumed to be a long-range missile, possibly an ICBM fired on a lofted trajectory, the Yonhap news agency reported.
If that is confirmed, it would be the first full-capability launch of the regime’s largest missiles since 2017, and a sign that it has made significant progress in developing weapons capable of delivering nuclear warheads anywhere in the US.
Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, described the launch as “reckless,” while the state minister of defense, Makoto Oniki, said the missile was possibly a new type of ICBM.
Oniki said the missile had flown for about an hour before landing inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone [EEZ] about 90 miles (150km) west of the Oshima peninsula on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, at 3:35pm local time. There were no reports of damage to aircraft or vessels in the area.
“At a time when the world is dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea is pressing ahead with launches that unilaterally aggravate provocations against the international community, which is absolutely unforgivable,” Oniki said.
Analysts say the unprecedented frequency of missile tests this year is a clear signal that Kim Jong-un is determined to cement North Korea’s status as a nuclear power, enabling the country’s leader to approach any future nuclear talks with the US from a position of strength.
“Despite economic challenges and technical setbacks, the Kim regime is determined to advance its missile capabilities,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “It would be a mistake for international policymakers to think the North Korean missile threat can be put on the back burner while the world deals with the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
The Kyodo news agency quoted Japanese government sources as saying that the missile had flown for 71 minutes to a range of 684 miles from its launch site, reaching an altitude of 6,000km. No previous North Korean missile had flown for that long or reached that altitude, Japan’s defense ministry said.
The suspected launch of an ICBM came as the US president, Joe Biden, and other G7 leaders prepared to meet in Brussels to discuss the war in Ukraine. But Pyongyang’s first full test-firing of an ICBM since 2017 is certain to draw condemnation from the US and its allies.
South Korea’s defense ministry did not immediately confirm whether the test involved an ICBM, while the country’s military said it had been fired from North Korea’s east coast towards the East Sea, which is also known as the Sea of Japan.
South Korea’s outgoing president, Moon Jae-in, called a meeting of the national security council, the presidential Blue House said. “The president seriously urged North Korea to immediately halt actions that create tension and return to the path of diplomatic settlement through conversations as soon as possible,” the presidential office said in a statement.
The launch will present Moon’s successor, Yoon Suk-yeol, with a considerable policy challenge when he takes office in early May.
North Korea has conducted 13 rounds of weapons launches this year, including one on 16 March in which a suspected missile exploded above the capital, Pyongyang, shortly after launch.
The volley of tests fueled speculation that Kim was gearing up for the launch of a larger weapon theoretically capable of reaching the US mainland.
US officials said the North had used two launches, on 27 February and 5 March, to evaluate components belonging to its largest ICBM system yet – the Hwasong-17 – before conducting another test at full range.
North Korea’s official media insisted that the two successful tests were aimed at developing cameras and other systems for a spy satellite.
Experts said a full Hwasong-17 launch could coincide with the 110th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, on 15 April.
North Korea has carried out three full ICBM tests, with the most recent, in November 2017, involving a new type of ICBM called a Hwasong-15. The regime claimed the missile was able to reach the entire US mainland.
Kim suspended missile launches during several rounds of nuclear diplomacy with Donald Trump in 2018, although their three meetings failed to make any progress on dismantling the North’s nuclear arsenal.
With little prospect for a return to nuclear talks with the Biden administration, North Korea hinted at the start of the year that it could break its self-imposed moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests.
“If today’s launch turns out to be an ICBM, it would signal an end to the moratorium. That’s for sure,” said Go Myong-hyun, a senior researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
The Hwasong-17, which is “considerably larger” than the Hwasong-15, was unveiled at a predawn military parade in October 2020 and displayed a second time at a defense exhibition in Pyongyang in October last year.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism