North Korea said Tuesday it successfully test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, a claim that brings the isolated state closer to its aim of building a device capable of hitting the continental U.S. with a nuclear warhead.
The missile was a newly-developed ICBM that reached an altitude of 2,800 kilometers (1,740 miles) and was fired at its highest angle, an announcer said on North Korean state television. She said the projectile that flew for 39 minutes could hit “anywhere in the world,” adding it caused no risk to neighboring nations.
Leader Kim Jong Un signed the order for the test of the missile called a Hwasong-14, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the projectile was fired around 9:40 a.m. and flew about 930 kilometers. Japan’s Defense Ministry said it reached an altitude that “greatly exceeded” 2,500 kilometers. Neither the U.S., South Korea nor Japan have confirmed whether it was an ICBM. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the country was examining North Korea’s claim.
Either way, the launch suggests an advancement in North Korea’s capability and risks escalating friction with its neighbors and the U.S. It comes ahead of a planned meeting this week between President Donald Trump and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in Germany.
“It’s an ICBM for sure,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California.
“The North Koreans seem to have made quite a lot of progress in the past year,” he said. “I don’t want to speculate until we can measure everything carefully, but it’s possible that it could strike targets in the continental U.S.”
China called for calm and restraint by all parties, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday at a regular briefing, according to China Central Television. Beijing firmly opposes any actions by North Korea that contravene United Nations Security Council resolutions, he said.
There are already renewed tensions between the U.S. and China about how best to rein in Kim, with Trump saying Xi has not done enough to curtail his neighbor and ally. China is North Korea’s main economic lifeline but fears too strong a squeeze on the regime could risk its collapse, leading both to a refugee crisis and a greater U.S. military presence on its doorstep.
“The ICBM launch could make an enormous impact on China-U.S. relations and even cause severe damage,” said Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School. “The leaders from both sides need to be very careful to not let North Korea manage their relationship.”
“It’s not important if the North is making a real claim or not,” Zhang added. “The launch shows that they keep moving forward.”
Trump responded earlier Tuesday on Twitter to the missile launch, asking of Kim “does this guy have anything better to do with his life?”
“Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer,” Trump said. “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
The U.S. president has said all options including military force are available against Pyongyang, though North Korea’s neighbors have warned a strike could be disastrous for North Asia, given the risk of retaliation. South Korea’s new government has also urged talks with Kim, a stance that puts it potentially at odds with Trump’s administration, which says negotiations can only happen if Kim halts his nuclear program.
South Korea will seek stronger sanctions against North Korea if the missile proves to be an ICBM, a presidential official told reporters Tuesday, adding it will take several days to analyze the launch. President Moon Jae-in still wants to pursue talks with North Korea to ease tensions, the official said.
The North Korean jitters hit markets in Asia. Japan’s benchmark Topix index finished the day 0.3 percent lower after wiping out earlier gains of as much as 0.7 percent, while the yen rose against the dollar. South Korea’s Kospi stocks index fell 0.6 percent.
David Wright, a co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote on the group’s website that the projectile could have a maximum range of about 6,700 kilometers with the potential to reach all of Alaska. That range, he wrote, wouldn’t be enough to reach the lower 48 states or the large islands of Hawaii.
“They have done some pretty significant things in tests in the past year or two already,” said Andrew Gilholm, director of analysis for North Asia at Control Risks Group. “There is no clear red line set where the U.S. says ‘if you pass this red line, we’ll do something different’.”
KCNA said that North Korea was a “full-fledged nuclear power” with ICBMs that can hit any part of the world. “The DPRK will fundamentally put an end to the U.S. nuclear war threat and blackmail and reliably defend the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and the region,” it said, referring to an abbreviation for the nation’s formal title.
China’s ambassador to the UN warned on Monday that “the consequences would be disastrous” if the U.S. and North Korea failed to resume talks. “We cannot afford to wait for too long before dialogue” Liu Jieyi told reporters in New York.