North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) into the Sea of Japan on Sunday, its neighbors said, resuming weapons tests as tensions flare on the Korean peninsula days after Pyongyang warned of a strong response to upcoming US-South Korean military drills.
The launch extended a record pace in North Korean missile testing this year as leader Kim Jong Un exploits a divide in the UN Security Council to build support at home and ramp up pressure on the United States to make concessions amid stalled diplomacy.
Missile Flew 600 Miles at Height of 3,600 Miles
According to details released by North Korea’s neighbors, the Hwasong-17 missile reached a maximum altitude of about 3,600 miles during an almost one-hour flight. The missile landed less than 125 miles from Japan’s coast, prompting a warning to residents to evacuate to shelters.
Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said the missile had sufficient range to reach the U.S. mainland. He called it “an act of violence that escalates provocation toward the international order.”
South Korea’s military called the launch “a grave provocation and serious threat” to undermine international and regional peace and security. It said South Korea maintains readiness to make an “overwhelming response to any North Korean provocation” amid close coordination with the United States.
After being briefed by his top military officials, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered officials to boost security cooperation with the United States and Japan and push for strong international condemnations and sanction measures at the UN Security Council. He also ordered increased surveillance to better detect North Korean attempts to boost its nuclear program.
Longest-Range Missile Since 2017 Test Over Japan
The launch extends a record number of missile demonstrations by North Korea this year as Kim Jong Un exploits divides at the United Nations Security Council and escalates pressure tactics aimed at forcing the United States to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and ease crushing economic sanctions.
Sunday’s launch was North Korea’s first since Jan. 1, when it fired a short-range weapon as Kim vowed to bolster his nuclear arsenal under the pressure of sanctions. That launch came days after Kim threatened to renew long-range and nuclear tests, setting a weapons testing pace that is higher than any time in Kim’s rule.
North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development has been banned by multiple UN Security Council resolutions. But the council has been divided on imposing new sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
The United States holds that the council should respond firmly to any prohibited ballistic missile launches by North Korea. But China and Russia argue that sanctions against the North should be eased to encourage dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington.
Most of the recent missiles tested by North Korea have been short-range weapons capable of striking South Korea. Some experts said Kim eventually would aim for more major weapons tests and ramp up pressure on the United States and regional neighbors as he tries to achieve his goals.
Implications for Deterrence Efforts and Nuclear Talks
The launch comes as North Korea has been ramping up tension in recent weeks by conducting several ballistic missile and artillery launches, some of which have flown over the border it shares with South Korea.
Pyongyang also passed a new law authorizing pre-emptive nuclear strikes in a broad range of scenarios, as leader Kim declares the country to be an “irreversible” nuclear power.
Analysts see the surge as a tactic to pressure President Yoon into concessions during his early months in office while Kim exploits divisions at the United Nations Security Council that have complicated the U.S. push for new sanctions.
“Its purpose is to divide the council members, win time, and maximize Pyongyang’s means to coerce Washington while testing technologies along the way,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
But strong international condemnation, including from North Korea’s main backer China, laid bare Pyongyang’s isolation at the Security Council. The pressure may eventually slow Kim’s testing program, but likely not before the North makes gains in its push to demonstrate it could credibly threaten the American homeland, experts say.
Sunday’s launch suggests that Kim remains undeterred in resuming broader testing of weapons designed to strike key targets in regional U.S. allies. Some experts already see the North Korean tests as having some technical elements that echo preparations for the invasion of Ukraine that began in February.
“North Korea is borrowing from Moscow’s playbook, calibrating provocation to coerce other states because it sees little prospect of real negotiations,” said Soo Kim, a security analyst and former CIA analyst manager. “Kim also seems to be getting bolder like Russian President Vladimir Putin as he faces a divided UN Security Council.”
Missile Testing to Continue Through 2023
North Korea is nearly certain to continue its testing activity as Kim tries to ensure his arsenal remains credible with the United States and regional neighbors. Solid fuel development may allow North Korea to deploy its missiles faster in the event of conflict because liquid fuels are labor intensive and require fueling before launch.
Analysts see little chance for any meaningful dialogue absent credible threats from the North. Kim is determined to fight his way out of the sanctions corner he finds himself in, “and that cannot be done with either soft power or soft language,” West said.
But sanctions combined with regional diplomacy could still function as an effective tool, according to West, possibly preventing events such as North Korea flight-testing an improved design.
“When North Korea pulls this kind of stunt under circumstances of minimum provocation, it shows its primary purpose is to blackmail the international community into giving sanctions relief without Pyongyang having to make any concessions,” he said.
With additional reporting from Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea.
North Korea’s Missile Capabilities
|Longest-range ICBM, tested by NK in 2017 and 2022
|Tested by NK in 2017, can reach all of US
|ICBM tested by NK in 2017
|IRBM tested several times since 2017
|SLBM tested in 2019 from submarine
|Shorter-range missile, tested frequently
This table shows some of North Korea’s key ballistic missiles and their estimated ranges. The long-range ICBMs like the Hwasong-17 pose the biggest threat to the US mainland. Meanwhile the shorter-range missiles threaten South Korea and Japan.
What Comes Next
North Korea has a long history of alternating between weapons tests and diplomatic overtures as a way to extract concessions from the international community. The Biden administration so far has said it is willing to have open-ended talks with Kim’s government but without giving up longstanding demands that North Korea abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Analysts say North Korea will likely continue military testing at intense levels as Kim tries to demonstrate progress in his weapons development goals and put pressure on Washington to accept Pyongyang as a nuclear-weapons power. South Korean officials have reported preparations for another underground nuclear test explosion by North Korea.
The missile launched Sunday was likely a version of the Hwasong-17 ICBM, which North Korea claimed to have successfully tested earlier this year but that analysts said exploded during launch. North Korean photos of the launch suggest the missile fired Sunday was a Hwasong-17 but smaller than the one it previously tested, said Park Won Gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womens University in Seoul.
That appeared to be at least the third flight test of a Hwasong-17 since North Korea rolled out that system and tested it for the first time in March. Observers had expected North Korea to halt weapons testing for the rest of the year after it test-fired around 70 missiles of various types — exceeding its record total in 2017 — under a decision that Kim announced in November. But North Korea has continued testing short-range missiles and artillery shells this winter.
“North Korea is moving 0n its own plan, continuously reassessing the situation after a blitz of missile tests to determine what actions it can get away with to attain its weapons goals,” said Soo Kim, the security analyst. “It sees military might as currency and deterrence.”
Nuclear talks have stalled since 2019 because of disagreements over the sanctions relief North Korea should receive in return for steps toward full denuclearization. Kim’s government has so far rejected the Biden administration’s offers to restart the talks unless Washington drops sanctions he views as threatening his country’s existence.
The North has continued trying to bolster its weapons arsenal in the meantime. While testing dozens of increasingly advanced short and medium-range missiles that place South Korea and Japan within striking distance, Kim Jong Un has also expanded his country’s nuclear capabilities, testing a purported thermonuclear warhead and intercontinental ballistic missiles potentially capable of reaching deep into the American homeland.
“North Korea is much closer than ever to having a reliable ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead that can strike the continental United States,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul. “Pyongyang’s missile technology is improving with each launch.”
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