North Korea appears to have launched another intercontinental ballistic missile, the Pentagon said Tuesday, with experts calculating that Washington, D.C., is now technically within Kim Jong Un’s reach.
The launch, the first in more than two months, is a sign that the North Korean leader’s regime is pressing ahead with its stated goal of being able to strike the United States mainland.
“We will take care of it,” President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House. It is a “situation we will handle.”
The missile traveled some 620 miles and reached a height of about 2,800 miles before landing off the coast of Japan early Wednesday local time, flying for a total of 54 minutes. This suggested it had been fired almost straight up – on a “lofted trajectory” similar to North Korea’s two previous ICBM tests.
If it had been 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.
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.
The Pentagon said the missile did indeed appear to be an ICBM.
“Initial assessment indicates that this missile was an intercontinental ballistic missile,” a Pentagon spokesman, Col. Robert Manning, said of the launch.
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.”
In Washington, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the missile was fired “higher, frankly, than any previous shots” that North Korea has taken.
He said Kim Jong Un’s continued effort to develop nuclear weapons “endangers world peace, regional peace and certainly he United States.”
The missile was launched just before 3 a.m. Wednesday local time from the western part of North Korea.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said 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.
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.”
Then, in July, his regime launched two ICBMs, the first on U.S. Independence Day. The second, on July 28, flew almost straight up for 45 minutes and reached a height of about 2,300 miles before crashing into the sea off Japan. But if it had been launched on a normal trajectory designed to maximize its range, it could have flown 6,500 miles, experts said.
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.
Those events triggered ire overseas, with Trump denouncing North Korea’s regime during a speech to the United Nations General Assembly and mocking Kim as “little rocket man.”
That label triggered an angry and unusually direct response from the North Korean leader, who called Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” and warned the U.S. president that he would “pay dearly” for his threat to destroy North Korea.
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, California. North Korea has now tested 20 missiles this year, compared with 24 by this time last year.
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.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post