North Korea fired a ballistic missile early Wednesday, the first such launch in two months and one that based on preliminary projections shows Pyongyang is edging closer to possessing a weapon that can hit Washington D.C.
The launch reported by South Korea and the US came just a week after US President Donald Trump reinstated North Korea on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, allowing for fresh sanctions on the country in addition to those already in force under UN mandates.
A report on North Korea television said the intercontinental ballistic missile can reach all areas of the US mainland and that the country under leader Kim Jong Un had achieved its goal of becoming a nuclear power. In September, it conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test.
“Kim Jong Un declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force,” according to a statement read by a television presenter.
Pyongyang has stoked international alarm, as well as UN Security Council sanctions backed by its main ally China, over its missile and nuclear weapon tests. Its last missile test was September 15, which had raised hopes sanctions were having an impact.
The South Korean military said the missile was fired from South Pyongan Province, reached an altitude of around 4,500 km (2,800 miles) and flew 960 km before breaking up and landing at sea in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
“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, basically,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the White House, Reuters reported.
In the statement, North Korea described itself as a “responsible nuclear power”, saying its strategic weapons were developed to defend itself from “the U.S. imperialists’ nuclear blackmail policy and nuclear threat.”
Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke by phone and agreed to boost deterrence capability, Yasutoshi Nishimura, deputy chief cabinet secretary, said in Tokyo.
“It is a situation that we will handle,” Trump told reporters at the White House. He said it did not change his administration’s approach to North Korea.
South Korea’s military staged a “precision strike” missile exercise test in response, Yonhap news agency said.
Japanese officials said the missile flew for 53 minutes and was likely an ICBM based on its high trajectory. Independent assessments of the launch seemed to corroborate North Korea’s claims on the missile’s distance capabilities.
“If these numbers are correct, then if flown on a standard trajectory rather than this lofted trajectory, this missile would have a range of more than 13,000 kilometers (km) (8,100 miles),” David Wright, senior scientist at the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement.
“This is significantly longer than North Korea’s previous long range tests, which flew on lofted trajectories for 37 minutes (July 4) and 47 minutes (July 28). Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington, D.C., and in fact any part of the continental United States,” Wright said.
“We do not know how heavy a payload this missile carried, but given the increase in range it seems likely that it carried a very light mock warhead. If true, that means it would be incapable of carrying a nuclear warhead to this long distance, since such a warhead would be much heavier.”
After firing missiles at a rate of about two or three a month since April, North Korea paused the program, following the September 15 missile it fired that passed over Japan’s northern Hokkaido island and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
North Korea has said its weapons programs are a defense against US plans to invade. The United States, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war, denies such intentions.
Last week, North Korea denounced Trump’s decision to reinstate it as a state sponsor of terrorism, calling it a “serious provocation and violent infringement.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the launch had been anticipated and that the government had been preparing for it. Moon said there was no choice but for countries to keep applying pressure and sanctions against North Korea.
“Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement. “The United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearization and to ending belligerent actions by North Korea.”
“In addition to implementing all existing UN sanctions, the international community must take additional measures to enhance maritime security, including the right to interdict maritime traffic” traveling to and from North Korea, Tillerson said.
Officials in South Korea, Japan and elsewhere had indicated earlier this week that activities in North Korea suggested another missile or nuclear test was imminent.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a US think tank, said on Sunday that there’s an increasing possibility that North Korea will engage in significant “weapons of mass destruction activities” in the next 30 days. CSIS said such activity might include a new ballistic missile test around December 17.
Radio Free Asia, a US-backed news outlet, also quoted a Chinese source over the weekend as saying that Pyongyang will probably carry out another nuclear test.