TOKYO – North Korea has taken another bold step toward achieving its stated goal of being able to send a nuclear weapon to the U.S. mainland, firing an intercontinental ballistic missile late Friday that highlights the regime’s rapid technological progress.
The missile flew almost straight up for 45 minutes and reached a height of about 2,300 miles before crashing into the sea off Japan. But if it had been launched on a normal trajectory, the missile could theoretically have reached Chicago and perhaps even New York, experts said.
This latest provocation compounds the problem facing the Trump administration and North Korea’s neighbors: how to stop the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un from making progress with its nuclear weapons program.
“Kim Jong Un does seem hellbent on acquiring the capability to reach the United States with nuclear weapons,” said Sharon Squassoni, director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The Pentagon and South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff both said they had detected the launch, which occurred Friday at about 11:11 p.m. North Korea time. The late-night launch was unusual, as North Korea usually fires missiles shortly after dawn.
“We assess that this missile was an intercontinental ballistic missile, as had been expected,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command “determined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America,” Davis said.
American officials assessed that the missile flew on a “lofted” trajectory to reach an apogee of 2,300 miles, before landing about 620 miles from its launch site in Chagang province in northwestern North Korea, near the border with China.
This is something that North Korea has been doing to test its missiles without firing them over Japan, an even more incendiary move.
The missile landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference convened early Saturday morning. Analysts said it landed off the coast of the northern island of Hokkaido.
“We cannot tolerate North Korea’s repeated provocations like this,” Suga said. “We have made a strong protest to North Korea and condemned this act in the strongest terms.”
If the missile had been fired on a trajectory designed to maximize its range, it could have flown 6,500 miles, said David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. This is without taking into account the rotation of the Earth, which increases the range of missiles fired to the east.
“Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago appear to be well within range of this missile, and that Boston and New York may be just within range,” Wright said. Washington may still be just out of range, he added.
These are only estimates, and experts do not know what kind of payload the missile was carrying, a factor that influences range.
But with its rapid succession of tests, North Korea is showing steady and observable technical progress that has alarmed analysts and officials alike.
Friday’s test comes just three weeks after North Korea fired its first intercontinental ballistic missile, launched as July 4 dawned in Asia, and becomes the 14th ballistic missile launch this year alone.
That missile, which North Korea called the Hwasong-14 (or Mars-14), flew to an altitude of 1,741 miles — seven times as high as the International Space Station — before landing in the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, 577 miles from its launch site. Analysts said that this would put Alaska and Hawaii within range.
Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) in California, said that this latest test was designed to demonstrate that North Korea could hit more of the mainland United States.
“My guess is that they want to show more range,” Lewis said, adding that North Korea was essentially calling the Pentagon’s bluff. “We basically dared them to do this. We said, ‘It’s not really an ICBM until it can hit Alaska,’ and they’re, like, ‘Okay.’ “
Ten of this year’s 14 ballistic missile launches can be considered successful, according to CNS researchers.
The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency has shaved two full years off the forecast for North Korea’s ICBM program, now estimating that North Korea will be able to field a reliable, nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile as early as next year.
A launch this week — the anniversary of the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War fell on Thursday — had been anticipated. U.S. intelligence agencies had seen signs that North Korea was preparing for another test.
The North Korean leader has repeatedly said he wants a nuclear-tipped missile that can reach the United States, and his defense minister Wednesday threatened to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States.
“If enemies misunderstand our strategic status and stick to options of staging a preemptive nuclear attack against us, we will launch a nuclear attack on America’s heart as the most relentless punishment without warning or prior notice,” the minister said at a ceremony to mark the conclusion of the Korean War, which ended in an armistice but which Pyongyang claims it won. The occasion is celebrated annually in North Korea as the “Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War.”
The Pentagon is planning another test of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system in Alaska soon. The system is designed to shoot down incoming missiles.
In a surprising apparent shift, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office in May vowing to review the U.S. deployment of a THAAD battery to South Korea, signaled he would now accept the system.
After an emergency National Security Council meeting held early Saturday morning, Moon’s office said he had directed his staff to consider ways to strengthen deterrence, including through the “additional deployment” of THAAD launchers.
The inevitability of North Korea’s nuclear weapons
The July 4 test, which violated United Nations resolutions against North Korea, was met with the usual rounds of international condemnation, and the latest provocation is likely to be greeted in the same way.
But the world has not found a way to persuade North Korea to stop.
The United States has been leading the charge for more and more sanctions against North Korea, but Russia and China – both veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – have been reluctant to impose painful measures and are calling instead for a “de-escalation plan” to deal with Pyongyang.
The Trump administration needs to focus on diplomacy as well as sanctions, said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association. “A deployed North Korean ICBM is not inevitable, but it will be if policymakers in Washington keep putting the cart before the horse and demanding Pyongyang meet onerous preconditions to begin talks,” she said.
The Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, has said that North Korea must agree to freeze its weapons program before talks can begin.
“Washington’s diplomacy deficit is further compounded by the dangerous illusion that sanctions alone will push North Korea to negotiate,” Davenport said, “when the Trump administration and Congress should be focused on signaling support for talks without conditions.”
Squassoni of CSIS agreed.
“We won’t know anything about North Korea’s intentions unless we engage them seriously and at length,” she said. “The Trump administration needs to commit resources and real expertise to reshaping peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.”
The Washington Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff in Washington contributed to this report.