North Korea’s apparently successful launch of a mid-to-long range missile indicated a significant advance in its drive for an intercontinental ballistic missile, monitors said on Monday, a worrying sign for the Korean peninsula and the United States.
The isolated North boasted on Monday that the launch the previous day, supervised by leader Kim Jong Un, was aimed at verifying the capability to carry a “large scale heavy nuclear warhead”.
Kim accused the United States of “browbeating” countries that “have no nukes” and warned Washington not to misjudge the reality that its mainland is in the North’s “sighting range for strike”, the North’s official KCNA news agency reported.
However, the U.S. military’s Pacific Command said on Sunday the type of missile that was fired was “not consistent” with an ICBM and South Korea’s military played down the North’s claim of technical progress on atmospheric re-entry.
“We believe the possibility of that is low,” said Roh Jae-cheon, a spokesman for South Korea’s Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The missile landed in the sea near Russia on Sunday in a launch that Washington called a message to South Korea, days after its new president took office pledging to engage Pyongyang in dialogue.
Moon responded on Monday by sending special envoys to the United States, China, Germany, Japan and Russia to explain his new government’s plans and policy towards the defiant North.
North Korea has been working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States, a flight of some 8,000 km (4,800 miles), presenting U.S. President Donald Trump with perhaps his most pressing security issue.
Trump said last month major conflict with North Korea was possible but he would prefer a diplomatic outcome. He has also vowed to prevent North Korea from being able to hit the United States with a nuclear missile, a capability experts say Pyongyang could have some time after 2020.
The latest missile launch suggested the North had taken a step in that direction, analysts said.
The new ballistic missile, named Hwasong-12, was fired at the highest possible angle to avoid affecting neighboring countries’ security and flew 787 km (489 miles) after reaching an altitude of 2,111 km (1,242 miles), KCNA said.
Those details were largely consistent with South Korean and Japanese assessments and indicated the missile flew higher and further than an intermediate-range missile test-fired from the same area in North Korea’s northwest in February.
North Korea is banned under United Nations resolutions from engaging in nuclear and missile development, but has conducted its fifth nuclear test and a string of missile launches since the start of last year.
The U.N. Security Council is due to meet on Tuesday to discuss the North’s latest missile launch, diplomats said, at the request of the United States, South Korea and Japan.
Experts said Sunday’s launch would have had a range of at least 4,000 km (2,500 miles) if fired at a standard trajectory.
That “represents a level of performance never before seen from a North Korean missile”, Washington-based monitoring project 38 North said in an analysis.
“It appears to have not only demonstrated an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) that might enable them to reliably strike the U.S. base at Guam, but more importantly, may represent a substantial advance to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM),” it said.
KCNA also claimed that the test launch verified “guidance and stabilization systems” and the reliability of a new engine, as well as the warhead homing feature that allowed it to survive “under the worst re-entry situation” and detonate accurately.
Kim Dong-yub, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said that, if true, that would mark a quicker-than-expected advancement in the North’s ICBM program.
He said the missile’s trajectory indicated the North was clearly testing the re-entry technology under flight environments that would be consistent for an ICBM.
The North has successfully launched long-range rockets twice to put objects into space, although many experts believed it was some years away from mastering the re-entry technology needed to perfect an ICBM.
North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun devoted half of its six-page edition on Monday to coverage of the missile test, including vivid photographs of the launch and a jubilant Kim Jong Un celebrating with military officers.
The photographs showed a long nose-coned projectile similar to missiles put on display in an April 15 military parade marking the birth anniversary of state founder Kim Il Sung.
The nose cone resembles that of the KN-08 ICBM the North is believed to be developing. Joshua Pollack of the U.S.-based Nonproliferation Review said the lofted trajectory of the launch would test re-entry by putting the missile through extra stress.
“This is an advanced missile, if their claims are true,” he said.
North Korea has accused the United States of a hostile policy to remove its regime and says its nuclear weapons and missiles are a “sacred sword” to protect itself.
“If the U.S. awkwardly attempts to provoke the DPRK, it will not escape from the biggest disaster in … history,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying, referring to the North’s formal name of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.