SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea launched an ICBM in its second major weapons test this month, which landed near Japanese waters on Friday and demonstrated the potential ability to launch nuclear strikes across the U.S. mainland.
While it’s unclear whether North Korea has working nuclear missiles, some experts say Friday’s launch involved its long-range missile, still in development, designed to carry multiple nuclear warheads to defeat US missile defense systems.
North Korea’s latest hot streak of weapons tests is aimed at advancing its nuclear arsenal and winning major concessions in future diplomacy. It comes as China and Russia have defied US efforts to tighten UN sanctions aimed at containing North Korea’s nuclear program.
The United States was quick to condemn the launch and vowed to take “all necessary measures” to ensure the security of its territory and its allies South Korea and Japan. Vice President Kamala Harris met with the leaders of those countries, as well as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, who are attending a regional forum in Bangkok to discuss the launch.
“We again call on North Korea to cease further unlawful, destabilizing activities. On behalf of the United States, I reaffirm our ironclad commitment to our Indo-Pacific alliances,” Harris said at the beginning of the meeting. “Together, the countries represented here will continue to urge North Korea to commit to serious and sustained diplomacy.”
South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said they spotted the ICBM launch from North Korea’s capital region around 10:15 a.m. Japan said it appears to be flying on a high trajectory and landing west of the island of Hokkaido.
According to South Korean and Japanese estimates, the missile flew 6,000 to 6,100 kilometers (3,600 to 3,790 mi) at a maximum altitude of 1,000 kilometers (620 mi).
Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said the missile has a range of more than 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles) depending on the weight of a potential warhead, “in which case it could cover the entire mainland United States.”
Kwon Yong Soo, a former professor at the Korea National Defense University in South Korea, said he believes North Korea has tested a Hwasong-17 development missile, which he says carries three to five nuclear warheads and can travel up to 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles). could fly. .
North Korea has two other ICBMs — Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 — and their test launches in 2017 showed they could potentially reach part or all of the US homeland, respectively. But Kwon said North Korea needs a long-range missile like the Hwasong-17, capable of flying a longer route to mainland America, to evade current US missile defense systems.
The exact status of North Korea’s nuclear and missile technologies is classified.
Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University in South Korea, said North Korea has demonstrated its missiles have ICBM-class flight ranges but has yet to prove publicly that warheads will be able to withstand the harsh conditions of reentry to survive in the atmosphere. Some experts believe North Korea likely acquired such technologies.
Chang said Friday’s launch was successful and that flight details indicated it was the same type of missile North Korea tested in March, when North Korea claimed to have launched a Hwasong-17 but South Korea insisted that it was a Hwasong-15.
US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said the launch “creates needless tension” and shows North Korea’s prioritization of illicit weapons programs over the well-being of its people. “Pyongyang must immediately halt its destabilizing actions and opt for diplomatic engagement instead,” Watson said.
In his opening remarks at the Bangkok meeting, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called the launch “completely unacceptable” and said the missile fell in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone west of Hokkaido. South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said the international community must work together to make North Korea realize that any of its provocations only deepen its international isolation and economic hardship.
Later Friday, the South Korean military said its F-35 fighter jets had been conducting drills simulating air strikes on mobile North Korean missile launchers at a firing range near the land border with North Korea. A group of eight South Korean and US fighter jets were said to have been separately conducting flight training off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula.
The drills “demonstrated our strong determination to deal sternly with an ICBM launch and any other provocations and threats from North Korea, as well as the overwhelming capacity and willingness of the allies to launch precision strikes against the enemy,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement .
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol had previously ordered officials to increase security cooperation with the United States and Japan and to urge tough international condemnations and sanctions against North Korea, his office said.
In recent months, North Korea has conducted dozens of short-range missile tests, which it called simulations of nuclear attacks on South Korean and US targets. On November 3, North Korea also launched a suspected Hwasong-17 missile, but experts say the weapon failed to fly its intended flight and fell into the ocean after a phase separation.
North Korea halted weapons launches for about a week before launching a short-range ballistic missile on Thursday. Prior to that launch, North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui threatened “tougher” military responses to US moves to strengthen its security commitments to South Korea and Japan.
Choe was referring to President Joe Biden’s recent meeting with Yoon and Kishida on the sidelines of a regional gathering in Cambodia. In their joint statement, the three leaders strongly condemned North Korea’s recent missile tests and agreed to work together to strengthen deterrence. Biden reiterated US commitments to defend South Korea and Japan with a full suite of capabilities, including nuclear weapons.
Choe did not describe what steps North Korea might take, but said that “the US will be aware that they are playing, which they will certainly regret.”
North Korea sees the US military presence in South Korea and Japan as evidence of American hostility. It has said its recent spate of weapon launches was in response to what it described as provocative military exercises between the United States and South Korea.
There have been concerns North Korea could conduct its first nuclear test in five years as the next major step in bolstering its military capabilities against the United States and its allies.
North Korea has faced several rounds of United Nations sanctions over its past nuclear and missile tests. However, no new sanctions were imposed this year as it has carried out dozens of launches of ballistic missiles prohibited by UN Security Council resolutions.
China and Russia, two Security Council veto members, oppose new UN sanctions. Washington finds itself in strategic competition with Beijing and in a confrontation with Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.
Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writer Krutika Pathi in Bangkok contributed to this report.