The launch, the first in more than two months, is a sign that the North Korean leader is pressing ahead with his nation’s stated goal of being able to strike the United States’ mainland and is not caving in to the Trump administration’s warnings. The missile logged a longer flight time than any of its predecessors.
“We will take care of it,” President Trump told reporters at the White House after the launch. He called it a “situation we will handle.”
Trump has repeatedly said that military options are on the table for dealing with North Korea, suggesting that time has run out for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear problem.
A growing chorus of voices in Washington is calling for serious consideration of military action against North Korea, although this is strongly opposed by South Korea, where the Seoul metropolitan region — home to 25 million people — is within the range of North Korean artillery.
And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that “diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now.” He added: “The United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearisation and to ending belligerent actions by North Korea.”
The missile, which launched early Wednesday local time, traveled some 620 miles and reached a height of about 2,800 miles before landing off the coast of Japan and flew for a total of 54 minutes. This suggested that it had been fired almost straight up — on a lofted trajectory similar to North Korea’s two previous intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
The Pentagon said that the projectile did indeed appear to be an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. The latest missile “went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said. He described the launch as part of an effort to build missiles “that can threaten everywhere in the world.”
If it had flown on a standard trajectory designed to maximize its reach, this missile would have a range of more than 8,100 miles, said David Wright, co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“This is significantly longer than North Korea’s previous long-range tests, which flew on lofted trajectories for 37 minutes and 47 minutes,” Wright said. “Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington, D.C.”
The U.S. capital is 6,850 miles from Pyongyang. The previous long-range test, in July, could have flown 6,500 miles if not on a lofted trajectory, experts said.
Although it may be cold comfort, it is still unlikely that North Korea is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland.
Scientists do not know the weight of the payload the missile carried, but given the increase in range, it seems likely that it carried a very light mock warhead, Wright said. “If true, that means it would not be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to this long distance, since such a warhead would be much heavier,” he said in a blog post.
But the North Koreans still appear to be in the testing stage, rather than the operational one, said Markus Schiller, a German aerospace engineer who specializes in missiles.
“If they are serious about their missile program, they have to launch from time to time, and at different times of the day and in different weather,” he said.
Schiller said that North Korea still has a way to go with its missile program. “Perhaps they can hit Washington, D.C., with this, but they can’t fight a war with it,” he said.
The missile was launched just before 3 a.m. local time Wednesday from the western part of North Korea.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said that it landed in waters inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, off the coast of Aomori Prefecture. The coast guard told ships to watch for falling debris, and the Japanese government condemned the launch.
South Korea’s military conducted a “precision strike” missile launch exercise in response, the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
The South Korean and Japanese governments both convened emergency national security council meetings, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said such launches “cannot be tolerated.”
Although it was the first North Korean missile launch in more than two months, there had been signs that the North was making preparations. The Japanese government had detected radio signals suggesting that North Korea might be preparing for a ballistic missile launch, Kyodo News reported Monday, citing government sources.
Pyongyang has been working to fit a nuclear warhead to a missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, a weapon it says it needs to protect itself from a “hostile” Washington. It has made rapid progress this year, firing two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July, the second of which was technically capable of reaching as far as Denver or Chicago, or possibly even New York.
A senior South Korean official said Tuesday that North Korea could announce next year that it has completed its nuclear weapons program.
“North Korea has been developing its nuclear weapons at a faster-than-expected pace. We cannot rule out the possibility that North Korea could announce its completion of a nuclear force within one year,” Cho Myoung-gyon, the unification minister, who is in charge of the South’s relations with the North, told foreign reporters in Seoul.
Kim Jong Un opened 2017 with a New Year’s address announcing that North Korea had “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of intercontinental ballistic missile.”
After its most recent missile launch, an intermediate-range missile that flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido on Sept. 15, North Korea said it was seeking military “equilibrium” with the United States as a way to stop American leaders from talking about military options for dealing with Pyongyang.
That was the second launch over Japan in less than three weeks and came less than two weeks after North Korea exploded what was widely believed to be a hydrogen bomb.
But despite an increase in tensions over the past two months, including a U.S. Navy three-carrier strike group conducting military exercises in the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, 74 days had passed without any missile launches by the North.
That was the longest pause all year, according to Shea Cotton, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. The pause had raised hopes that North Korea might be showing interest in returning to talks about its nuclear program.
In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations late last month, Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea policy, said that if North Korea went 60 days without testing a missile or a nuclear weapon, it could be a sign that Pyongyang was open to dialogue.