Tuesday morning’s missile test, which was conducted on the orders of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, reached a height of 2,802 kilometers (1,741 miles), according to state broadcaster Korea Central Television (KCTV).
That’s the highest altitude ever reached by a North Korean missile, and puts the US on notice that Pyongyang could potentially hit the US mainland.
The regime appears to have timed the launch for maximum political effect, giving the order to fire on the eve of the July 4 holiday, just days after US President Donald Trump spoke with Japanese and Chinese leaders about the North Korea threat and before this week’s G20 meeting.
How true is claim?
Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, said that one apparently successful test doesn’t necessarily mean that North Korea has the global capability it claimed.
“If the North Koreans are claiming they can launch an ICBM (to) anywhere in the world, that needs to be looked at through a technical lens,” he said, using the acronym for intercontinental ballistic missile.
“One successful test doesn’t get them over the bar; they’re claiming more than they can deliver at the moment.”
Most successful test yet
The missile, referred to as Hwasong-14 on state TV, flew into waters east of the Korean Peninsula and may have landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from its coastline, according to a Japanese defense official.
The US Pacific Command said it tracked the missile for 37 minutes and described it as a “land-based, intermediate range ballistic missile.” Japan reported that its flight time was 40 minutes.
It was launched from Panghyon, in North Pyongan province, and traveled more than 930 kilometers (578 miles), according to South Korea’s military — further than a May 14 missile launch that analysts described as its most successful test ever. That launch reached a then-record altitude of around 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles).
South Korea’s evaluation found the missile had an “improved range” compared to the May missile, said Cho Han-gyu, the director of operations for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Bruce Bennett, senior international/defense researcher at RAND Corp., said North Korea had aimed high to limit the distance traveled and avoid a major international incident.
“You can’t hardly fire a missile from North Korea that’s got a thousand-kilometer range without it going into somebody’s exclusive economic zone. The bottom line is, they’ve flown it very high so that they can test the range of the missile. If they were to shoot it on a normal trajectory, it’s probably going to go out 6,000 or so kilometers. By definition, anything over 5,500 kilometers is an ICBM,” he said.
Russia, which shares a small border with North Korea, cast doubt on Pyongyang’s claim that an ICBM was fired.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement it believes the missile reached an altitude of only 535 kilometers (332 miles) and traveled 510 kilometers (317 miles), according to state-run Sputnik news.
“The parametric data of the ballistic target’s trajectory matches the performance characteristics of a medium-range ballistic missile,” the statement said.
Trump responds to launch
It’s North Korea’s 11th missile test this year and comes amid increasing frustration from Trump about the lack of progress in curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Soon after the launch, but before North Korea announced its unprecedented height, the US President responded on Twitter.
“North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” Trump asked, referring to Kim.
“Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said the ICBM test puts the US in a difficult negotiating position.
“I think there’s room for negotiation, but it’s not the kind of negotiations we want,” she said.
The US can now only work toward limiting, not eliminating, the North Korean missile threat to the US mainland, she added.
Asian powers condemn action
China, North Korea’s northern neighbor and one of the only countries in the region with diplomatic ties to Pyongyang, urged restraint after the launch.
“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is sensitive and complex,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang. “We hope all relevant parties will exercise restraint and avoid taking actions that may escalate tensions.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. Neither has commented on the launch.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in warned North Korea not to cross the “bridge of no return” and called on China to play a stronger role in resolving the situation.
Language from the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Cho was much more dire in tone.
“If North Korea ignores South Korean military’s warning and carries on reckless provocations, we warn that the Kim Jong Un regime will face its destruction,” Cho said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the launch “ignores repeated warnings from the international community,” and shows the threat had “further increased.”
‘Out of control’?
Trump has repeatedly urged China to bring its influence to bear on the issue. He recently tweeted that Chinese efforts on North Korea, while appreciated, had “not worked out.”
On Monday Liu Jieyi, China’s ambassador to the UN, warned of the risk of escalating tensions on the peninsula.
“Certainly we would like to see a de-escalation of tension,” he said in remarks to the media as China assumed the United Nations Security Council presidency for July.
“Certainly if tension goes up and goes up only then sooner or later it will get out of control and the consequences will be disastrous,” Liu said.