The launch, which expanded North Korea’s arms test barrage this year, came after the U.S. and South Korean armies said the country was preparing for a flight of a new large ICBM that first unveiled in October 2020.
The South Korean military responded with live-fire exercises with its own missiles fired from land vehicles, a ship and an aircraft.
He said he had reaffirmed his readiness to carry out precision strikes against North Korean missile launchers as well as command and support facilities. The South’s reaction underscored the resumption of intra-Korean tensions as nuclear talks remain frozen.
The South Korean Defense Ministry and the South Korean Ministry of Defense said the ICBM rocket fired from the Sunan area near the capital Pyongyang traveled 1,080 kilometers (671 miles) and reached a maximum altitude of more than 6,200 kilometers (3,852 miles). This showed that the rocket was launched at an angle higher than usual to avoid reaching the territorial waters of Japan.
Japan’s Deputy Defense Minister Makoto Oniki gave similar flight details and said they had proposed a new type of ICBM. After arriving in Belgium for the G7 summit, Prime Minister Fumio Kishinda told reporters that the rocket had probably landed near Japanese territorial waters off the northern island of Hokkaido.
“It is an unforgivable recklessness. We strongly condemn the act,” Kishida said.
Tokyo Cabinet Secretary-General Hirokazu Matsuno said the rocket flew for 71 minutes and that Japan could look for debris in its exclusive economic zone to analyze the weapons technology of the North. The Japanese Coast Guard issued a warning to ships in nearby waters, but there were no immediate reports of damage to boats or aircraft.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council to criticize North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for violating the ICBM moratorium and posing a “serious threat” to the region and the wider international community. Moon instructed officials to pursue “all possible retaliatory measures” based on its alliance with the United States and cooperation with other international partners, his office said. After an extremely provocative series of nuclear explosives and ICBM tests in 2017, Kim unilaterally suspended such tests in 2018 before his first meeting with then-US President Donald Trump.
North Korea’s cumulative arms tests reflect its determination to consolidate its status as a nuclear power and extract much-needed financial concessions from Washington and others in power, analysts say.
Kim may also feel the need to proclaim his military achievements to his domestic audience and reaffirm his faith as he struggles with a devastated economy that has been exacerbated by the closure of the border by the pandemic.
“Despite economic challenges and technical setbacks, the Kim regime is determined to advance its missile capabilities,” said Leif-Eric Esley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “It would be a mistake for international policymakers to believe that the North Korean missile threat could be put behind them as the world faces the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
Biden’s passive handling of North Korea so far, while focusing on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and intensifying rivalry with China, leaves more room for the North to speed up its testing activity, some experts say. The government’s actions in North Korea have so far been limited to largely symbolic sanctions imposed by recent trials and open talks offers that were quickly rejected by the Pyongyang leadership.
In Seoul, there are views that Washington is backing down from the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy of ignoring North Korea until it takes denuclearization seriously, although this approach has been criticized for neglecting a cumulative nuclear threat.
It was the 12th round of North Korea’s weapons launch this year and came after the launch of suspicious artillery at sea on Sunday.
The North has also tested a variety of new missiles, including a supposed supersonic weapon and the first launch in 2017 of a medium-range missile capable of reaching Guam, a key US military hub in the Pacific.
It has also conducted two mid-range tests in recent weeks from Sunan, home to the country’s main airport, which the U.S. and South Korean armies believe were involved in elements of the largest ICBM in the north. The Allies had said that the missile, which the North calls Hwasong-17, could be tested at full range soon.
These tests followed another launch by Sunan last week. However, the South Korean military said the rocket probably exploded shortly after launch. Details of the blast and the possible damage to civilians remain unknown.
North Korea’s official media insisted the two successful tests were aimed at developing cameras and other systems for a spy satellite. Analysts say the North is clearly trying to continue ICBM testing at the same time and gain some level of space reconnaissance capability under the guise of a space launch to reduce international reactions to the moves.
The launch may take place around a major political anniversary in April, the birthday of state founder Kim Il Sung, the late grandfather of current leader Kim.
Previous Northern ICBMs have shown potential range to reach the U.S. homeland during three flights in 2017. The development of the larger Hwasong-17, first unveiled at a military parade in October 2020, probably suggests aiming to arm it with multiple warheads to crush missile defenses, experts say.
The last North Flight was tested by an ICBM in November 2017, when the Hwasong-15 flew about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) for about 50 minutes at a maximum altitude of 4,000 kilometers (2,400 miles). It was not immediately clear if the missile from the last test was the Hwasong-17.
Talks on denuclearization with the United States have stalled since 2019, when the United States rejected North Korea’s request for a significant release of US-imposed ammunition in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
Kim chaired a meeting of the ruling Labor Party on January 19, where members of the Politburo issued a covert threat to end the ICBM moratorium, citing US hostility. Eleven days later, the North conducted its first test of a medium-range missile since 2017, marking the resumption of major weapons tests.
The South Korean military also spotted signs that North Korea was likely to restore some of the tunnels in its nuclear test site that exploded in May 2018, weeks before Kim’s first meeting with Trump. The military has not said whether it believes the North was rehabilitating the site to resume nuclear tests.
Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo.
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