SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Sunday fired what appeared to be the most powerful missile it has tested since US President Joe Biden took office, possibly breaching a self-imposed suspension on the testing of longer-range weapons as it revives its old playbook in brinkmanship to wrest concessions from Washington and neighbors amid a prolonged stalemate in diplomacy.
Japanese officials said the missile, based on their initial assessment of its flight path, potentially reached a maximum altitude of 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) and traveled 800 kilometers (497 miles) before landing in the sea.
The flight details suggest the North tested its longest-range ballistic missile since 2017, when it flew intermediate-range ballistic missiles over Japan and separately flight-tested three intercontinental-range ballistic missiles that demonstrated the potential range to reach deep into the US mainland.
Sunday’s test was the North’s seventh round of weapons launches this month. The unusually fast pace of tests indicates North Korea’s intent to pressure the Biden administration over long-stalled nuclear negotiations as pandemic-related difficulties unleash further shock on an economy broken by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in called an emergency National Security Council meeting where he described the test as a possible “midrange ballistic missile launch” that brought North Korea to the brink of breaking its 2018 suspension in the testing of nuclear devices and longer-range ballistic missiles.
The launch came after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un chaired a ruling party meeting on January 20 where senior party members made a veiled threat to lift the moratorium, which also included intermediate-range ballistic missiles along with nuclear explosives and ICBMs, citing what they perceived as US hostility and threats.
Japan’s assessment of the latest missile’s flight details suggests that North Korea’s moratorium is already broken, said Lee Choon Geun, a missile expert and honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute. He said the data suggests that the North tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile or possibly even a weapon approaching ICBM capacities.
In his strongest comments toward the North in years, Moon said the situation around the Korean Peninsula is beginning to resemble 2017, when North Korea’s provocative run in nuclear and long-range missile testing resulted in a verbal exchange of war threats between Kim and then-US president Donald Trump.
Moon described the North’s latest tests as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions and a “challenge toward the international society’s efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, stabilize peace and find a diplomatic solution” to the nuclear standoff.
The North “should stop its actions that create tensions and pressure and respond to the dialogue offers by the international community including South Korea and the United States,” Moon said, according to his office.
Moon, who had ambitiously pushed for inter-Korean engagement, held three summits with Kim in 2018 while also lobbying to set up Kim’s first summit with Trump in 2018, where they issued vague aspirational goals for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula without describing when and how it would occur. But the diplomacy derailed after the collapse of the second Kim-Trump meeting in 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korea’s demand for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Sunday’s missile flew for around 30 minutes and landed in waters outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile was fired from an inland area in northern North Korea, but didn’t immediately release flight details.
There were no immediate reports of damage to boats or aircraft.
The launch came three days after North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea on Thursday. The North also flight-tested a pair of purported long-range cruise missiles on Tuesday while vowing to strengthen its nuclear “war deterrent” and build more powerful weapons.
Experts say the North could halt its testing spree after the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics next week out of respect for China, its major ally and economic lifeline. But there’s also expectation that the North could significantly up the ante in weapons demonstrations once the Olympics end in February to grab the attention of the Biden administration, which has been focusing more on confronting China and Russia over its conflict with Ukraine.
“North Korea is launching a frenzy of missiles before the start of the Beijing Olympics, mostly as military modernization efforts. Pyongyang also wants to boost national pride as it gears up to celebrate political anniversaries in the context of economic struggles,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“It wants to remind Washington and Seoul that trying to topple it would be too costly. By threatening stability in Asia while global resources are stretched thin elsewhere, Pyongyang is demanding the world compensate it to act like a ‘responsible nuclear power,’” Easley added.
North Korea has justified its testing activity as an exercise of its rights to self-defense and threatened stronger action after the Biden administration imposed fresh sanctions following two tests of a purported hypersonic missile earlier this month.
While desperate for outside relief as his economy decays under crippling US-led sanctions and pandemic-related difficulties, Kim has shown no willingness to surrender the nuclear weapons and missiles he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival. Analysts say Kim’s pressure campaign is aimed at forcing Washington to accept the North as a nuclear power and convert their nuclear disarmament-for-aid diplomacy into negotiations for mutual arms reduction.
Kim last year announced a new five-year plan for developing weapons and issued an ambitious wish list that included hypersonic weapons, spy satellites, solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched nuclear missiles.
State media said Friday that Kim visited an unspecified munitions factory producing a “major weapons system,” and that the workers pledged loyalty to their leader who “smashes with his bold pluck the challenges of US imperialists and their vassal forces.”