North Korea said Monday that it successfully test-fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of hitting the US island of Guam, marking the North’s most important weapon launch in years, as Washington prepares to demonstrate its commitment to its Asian allies.
The launch on Sunday could be a precursor to more provocative actions by North Korea, such as nuclear and long-range missile tests that pose a direct threat to the United States’ mainland, as the North tries to increase pressure on the Biden administration to lift sanctions or gain international recognition as a legitimate nuclear power.
The goal of the test, according to the official Korean Central News Agency, was to verify the overall accuracy of the Hwasong-12 missile already in use by the military.
KCNA released two sets of images, one showing the missile rising from a launcher and flying into space, and the other showing North Korea and its environs, which it said were captured from space by a camera implanted at the rocket’s warhead. Because the photographs’ legitimacy could not be verified, the Associated Press opted not to use them.
North Korea said the missile was shot at a high angle toward seas off its east coast to avoid flying over other nations. It didn’t go on to say anything else.
The missile traveled around 800 kilometers (497 miles) and reached a maximum height of 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) before landing between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, according to South Korean and Japanese estimates.
According to the flight details, it is the most powerful missile North Korea has tested since 2017, when it launched Hwasong-12 and longer-range missiles in a frenzy of weapons tests to gain the ability to launch nuclear strikes on US military bases in Northeast Asia and the Pacific, as well as the US homeland.
When fired on a conventional trajectory, the Hwasong-12 missile is a nuclear-capable ground-to-ground weapon with a maximum range of 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles). It’s a long enough trip to reach Guam, which is home to US military bases that have dispatched sophisticated airplanes to the Korean Peninsula in the past when tensions were high. North Korea threatened to build “an engulfing fire” near Gaum with Hwasong-12 missiles in August 2017, at a time when tensions with the Trump administration were at an all-time high.
North Korea also test-fired Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2017, which experts think proved its capability to strike the United States’ mainland. Some observers believe North Korea has to undertake further ICBM tests to demonstrate that it has conquered the last remaining technological challenges, such as safeguarding a warhead from the intense heat and pressure of reentering the atmosphere.
North Korea has launched a number of missile systems in recent months and has threatened to end a four-year ban on more severe weapons tests such as nuclear explosions and ICBM launches. Other weapons tested recently include a prototype hypersonic missile and a submarine-launched missile, and Sunday’s launch marked the North’s eighth round of missile launches in January alone.
The Hwasong-12 launch was considered as partially violating North Korea’s nuclear test ban, according to Cheong Seong-Chang of the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. When North Korea paused nuclear and ICBM testing in April 2018 in preparation for now-stalled talks with the Trump administration, Kim stated that the country no longer needed to test intermediate-range missiles.
If the US leads further sanctions against North Korea, Cheong believes it would test-launch its existing long-range missile. North Korea might also undertake a nuclear test, according to some analysts.
North Korea has said officially that it will increase the number of strong ICBMs and nuclear weapons in its arsenal. A longer-range ICBM with precision strike capabilities, a solid-fuel ICBM that enhances weapon mobility, a multi-warhead missile, a spy satellite, and a super-sized warhead are among the items on the list.
White House officials said after Sunday’s launch that the latest missile test was part of an escalating pattern of provocations over the previous few months that had gotten more troubling.
According to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, the Biden administration plans to respond to the latest missile test in the coming days with an unspecified move meant to demonstrate to the North that the US government is committed to allies’ security in the region.
The government, according to the person, saw Sunday’s missile launch as the latest in a series of provocations aimed at gaining sanctions relief from the US. The Biden administration has once again urged North Korea to resume discussions, but it has made plain that it does not consider Donald Trump’s leader-to-leader encounters with Kim to be useful at this time.
South Korean and Japanese authorities both criticized the launch on Sunday, saying it violated United Nations Security Council resolutions prohibiting the nation from testing ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons.
Since a second summit between Kim and Trump faltered in early 2019 owing to disagreements over sanctions, US-led diplomacy aimed at persuading North Korea to forgo its nuclear program has virtually stopped. North Korea has refused to resume negotiations, citing American hostility as a reason.
“Even if Washington had more bandwidth to focus on the North Korean nuclear issue, Pyongyang would likely continue to refuse direct talks due to the pandemic, keep perfecting its weapons technology, and maintain its high price tag for talks,” said Duyeon Kim, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
North Korea’s nuclear tests might be halted during the Beijing Winter Olympics, according to observers, because China is its most significant friend and assistance donor. However, they believe that once the Olympics are over and the US and South Korean forces begin their regular springtime military drills, North Korea may test larger weapons.