BEIJING – North Korea on Tuesday claimed it had successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, a potential milestone in its campaign to develop a nuclear-tipped weapon capable of hitting the mainland United States.
In a special announcement on state television, North Korea said it launched a Hwasong-14 missile that flew about 579 miles, reaching an altitude of 1,741 miles.
South Korean and Japanese authorities are now looking into whether it was indeed an ICBM; U.S. Pacific Command’s first statement on the test called it an intermediate range missile.
Tuesday’s news will no doubt renew questions about the development of weapons that President Donald Trump, as president-elect, vowed to stop. It also looks set to put North Korea back at the top of the president’s agenda, most immediately at Group of 20 meetings in Germany this week.
As news of the test broke, but before North Korea claimed it was an ICBM, Trump took to Twitter, calling out North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and appearing to once again urge China to do more to pressure him.
“North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” Trump wrote.
“Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer,” he continued. “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared to share Trump’s frustration, if not his tone. In remarks to the press, he vowed to work closely with the United States and South Korea, but called on China and Russia to do more.
“I’d like to strongly urge international society’s cooperation on the North Korea issue and urge China’s chairman, Xi Jinping, and Russia’s President Putin to take more constructive measures.”
In a daily press conference, Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, condemned the test but countered that Beijing had “spared no effort” in its fight.
Analysts are still looking for clues about the missile and parsing what those clues might mean, both in terms of North Korea’s capability and the international community’s response.
The launch was made from a site in North Korea’s Phyongan province and the missile flew more than 500 miles before landing in waters off Japan’s coast, U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials said.
U.S. Pacific Command said the missile was in the air for 37 minutes. As with other recent launches, the missile appears to have been fired at a very steep trajectory in an effort to to avoid flying over neighbors like Japan.
Using those number, David Wright, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, calculated that the missile could have traveled more than 4000 miles if it was fired at a normal-that is, less steep-trajectory. That means this type of missile could potentially fly as far as Alaska, he said.
Melissa Hanham, a North Korea expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, called Tuesday’s test a “huge milestone” for North Korea. Still, she stressed, is only a theoretical possibility-for now.
Hanham said North Korea is not known to have tested components necessary for such a hit, but may do so in the future. The point is that they are moving quickly. “Is this particular ICBM going to hit (Washington) D.C.? No. But are they working toward it? Yes,” she said.
The launch comes after a string of recent moves, including a salvo of missiles last month and three tests in May alone. Kim has now launched more missiles in one year than his father did in 17 years in power.
The North’s ICBM claim adds a new complication to the relationship between the United States and China under Trump.
Since taking office, Trump has made North Korea’s weapons program a priority, focusing his efforts – and tweets – on getting China to pressure North Korea to back down, in part by choking of the regime’s access to resources.
In recent weeks, there have been signs that he is frustrated with China’s progress. On June 21, Trump tweeted that, although he appreciated Beijing’s efforts, “it has not worked out.”
China insists it is doing all it can and seems angry about being singled out.
“The United States itself should take actions, not always depend on China for everything,” said Zhang Liangui, a retired professor from Communist Party’s Central Party School.
Beijing last week condemned U.S. sanctions that target Chinese business, warning of consequences to U.S.-China ties. They maintain the issue should be handled by the United Nations, not the United States.
It is not yet clear how the latest news will shape this diplomatic impasse. John Delury, an Asia expert at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said there maybe a political imperative for Trump to downplay the significance of the test.
Trump “set an implicit red line,” Delury said, “and it doesn’t look good if the North Koreans skipped across the line when he wasn’t looking, especially after a tweet that played it down.”
Kim, meanwhile, will want to play up the test to bolster his domestic credibility and send a signal to the United States, South Korea and Japan.
Unsurprisingly, in North Korean, the launch was indeed hailed as a historic triumph.
“The success in the test-fire of intercontinental ballistic rocket Hwasong-14 is a powerful manifestation of the invincible state might and the tremendous capability of the self-reliant national defense industry of the DPRK,” read one North Korean account, according to Chinese state media.
“It is also a great auspicious event to be specially recorded in the history of the DPRK.”
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