North Korea conducted what is thought to be its largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test ever on Thursday, the South Korean and Japanese militaries said, marking a dramatic end to a self-imposed moratorium on long-range testing.
It would be the first full-capability launch of the nuclear-armed state’s largest missiles since 2017, and represents a major step in Pyongyang’s development of weapons that might be able to deliver nuclear warheads anywhere in the United States.
North Korea’s return to major weapons tests also poses a new national security headache for U.S. President Joe Biden as he responds to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and presents a challenge to South Korea’s incoming conservative administration.
Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, meeting at a Group of Seven summit in Brussels in a show of unity against the Kremlin’s war, condemned the North Korean launch, stressed the need for diplomacy and agreed to work together to hold Pyongyang “accountable,” a White House official said.
“This launch is a brazen violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilising the security situation in the region,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier in a statement.
North Korea had put its ICBM and nuclear tests on hold since 2017, but has defended the weapons as necessary for self-defence. Amid stalled denuclearization efforts that Biden has struggled to jumpstart, Pyongyang has said U.S. overtures are insincere as long as Washington and its allies maintain “hostile policies” such as sanctions and military drills.
North Korea’s missile launch came as the world’s attention was riveted on the Ukraine crisis and was a jarring reminder that its leader Kim Jong Un will not be ignored.
South Korea’s outgoing President Moon Jae-in, who made engaging North Korea a major goal of his administration, condemned the launch as “a breach of the moratorium on ICBM launches that Chairman Kim Jong Un himself promised to the international community”. Moon is due to leve office in May.
The latest missile launch was an “unacceptable act of violence”, Kishida said.
Thursday’s ICBM launch prompted South Korea to test-fire a volley of its own, smaller ballistic and air-to-ground missiles to demonstrate it has the “capability and readiness” to precisely strike missile launch sites, command and support facilities, and other targets in North Korea if necessary, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, speaking by phone, called for a decisive response and agreed that additional measures by the U.N. Security Council were essential, South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
The United States, Britain, France, Ireland, Albania and Norway asked the Security Council to hold a public meeting on Friday to discuss the North Korean launch, diplomats said.
Thursday’s launch would be at least the 11th North Korean missile test this year, an unprecedented frequency.
Japanese authorities said the launch appeared to be a “new type” of ICBM that flew for about 71 minutes to an altitude of about 6,000km (3,728 miles) and a range of 1,100 km (684 miles) from its launch site.
It landed inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), 170 km (106 miles) west of the northern prefecture of Aomori, at 3:44 p.m. (0644 GMT), the coast guard said.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff put the missile’s maximum altitude at 6,200 km and its range at 1,080 km.
That is further and longer than North Korea’s last ICBM test in 2017, when it launched a Hwasong-15 missile that flew for 53 minutes to an altitude of about 4,475 km and range of 950 km.
South Korea’s JCS said the latest missile was launched from near Sunan, where Pyongyang’s international airport is located. On March 16, North Korea launched a suspected missile from that airport that appeared to explode shortly after liftoff, South Korea’s military said.
U.S. and South Korean officials have warned recently that North Korea had been preparing to test-fire its largest ICBM yet, the Hwasong-17. U.S. officials said two recent tests featured the Hwasong-17 system, but did not demonstrate full ICBM range or capability.
Pyongyang did not identify the missile system used in those launches, but said they were testing components for a reconnaissance satellite system. This month, leader Kim said North Korea would soon launch multiple satellites to monitor military movements by the United States and its allies.
South Korean officials were also examining whether North Korea on Thursday might have launched its previously tested Hwasong-15, possibly with its rocket thrusters and warhead weight adjusted to increase flight time, Yonhap news agency reported, citing unnamed sources.
Amid a flurry of diplomacy in 2018, Kim declared a self-imposed moratorium on testing ICBMs and nuclear weapons, but later suggested the North could resume such testing amid stalled denuclearisation talks.
That moratorium had often been touted as a success by former U.S. President Donald Trump, who held historic summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019, but never gained a concrete pact to limit the North’s nuclear or missile arsenals.
New construction has also been spotted at North Korea’s only known nuclear test site, which was shuttered in 2018.
The looming prospect of possible nuclear tests, more joint U.S.-South Korea military drills, and the new conservative South Korean president mean “all conditions are present for a tit-for-tat chain reaction of escalatory steps”, said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.
“Though Biden would prefer to focus exclusively on the Ukraine crisis, it’s likely he will soon face crisis-level tensions between the Koreas,” he said.