SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea said it successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile yesterday in a “breakthrough” that puts the US mainland within range of its nuclear weapons whose warheads could withstand re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.
North Korea, which conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test in September, has tested dozens of ballistic missiles under its leader, Kim Jong-un, in defiance of international sanctions. The latest was the highest and longest any North Korean missile had flown, landing in the sea near Japan.
North Korea said the new missile reached an altitude of about 4,475km – more than 10 times the height of the International Space Station – and flew 950km during its 53-minute flight. “After watching the successful launch of the new type ICBM Hwasong-15, Kim Jong-un declared with pride that now we have finally realised the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power,” according to a statement read by a TV presenter.
State media said the missile was launched from a newly developed vehicle and that the warhead could withstand the pressure of re-entering the atmosphere.
Mr Kim personally guided the missile test and said the new launcher was “impeccable”, state media said. He described the new vehicle as a “breakthrough”.
North Korea also described itself as a “responsible nuclear power”, saying its strategic weapons were developed to defend itself from “the US imperialists’ nuclear blackmail policy and nuclear threat”.
Many nuclear experts say the North has yet to prove it has mastered all technical hurdles, including the ability to deliver a heavy nuclear warhead reliably atop an ICBM, but it was likely that it soon would.
“We don’t have to like it, but we’re going to have to learn to live with North Korea’s ability to target the United States with nuclear weapons,” said Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia Nonproliferation Programme at the Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies.
US, Japanese and South Korean officials all agreed the missile, which landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, was likely an ICBM. The test did not pose a threat to the US, its territories or allies, the Pentagon said.
“It went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken, a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten everywhere in the world,” US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said.
Mr Trump spoke by phone with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, with all three reaffirming their commitment to combat the North Korean threat.
“It is a situation that we will handle,” Mr Trump told reporters.
Mr Trump, who was briefed on the missile while it was in flight, said it did not change his administration’s approach to the North, which has included new curbs to hurt trade between China and North Korea.
Mr Abe and Mr Moon, in a separate telephone call, said they would “no longer tolerate” North Korea’s increasing threats and would tighten sanctions, the South’s presidential office said.
Washington has said repeatedly that all options, including military ones, are on the table in dealing with North Korea while stressing its desire for a peaceful solution.
“Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said. Other than enforcing existing UN sanctions, “the international community must take additional measures to enhance maritime security, including the right to interdict maritime traffic” travelling to North Korea, Mr Tillerson said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the launch. “This is a clear violation of Security Council resolutions and shows complete disregard for the united view of the international community,” his spokesman said.
China, North Korea’s lone major ally, expressed “grave concern” at the test, while calling for all sides to act cautiously.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also urged all sides to stay calm, saying this was necessary to avoid a worst-case scenario on the Korean peninsula.
The new Hwasong-15 was a more advanced version of an ICBM tested twice in July, North Korea said. It was designed to carry a “super-large heavy warhead”.
Based on its trajectory and distance, the missile would have a range of more than 13,000km – more than enough to reach Washington DC and the rest of the US, the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists said.
However, it was unclear how heavy a payload the missile was carrying, and it was uncertain if it could carry a large nuclear warhead that far, the non-profit science advocacy group added.
Minutes after the North fired the missile, South Korea’s military said it conducted a missile-firing test in response.