Updated January 29, 2022 at 11:20 p.m. ET
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Sunday fired what appeared to be the most powerful missile it had tested since U.S. President Joe Biden took office. Launch may have violated a self-imposed suspension of longer-range weapons testing as it revives its old tightrope playbook to wrest concessions from Washington and its neighbors amid a prolonged deadlock in diplomacy.
The Japanese and South Korean militaries said the missile was launched on an elevated trajectory, apparently to avoid neighboring territorial spaces, and reached a maximum altitude of 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) and traveled 800 kilometers (497 miles) before landing at sea.
Flight details suggest the North has been testing its longest-range ballistic missile since 2017, when it twice flew intermediate-range ballistic missiles over Japan and separately flight-tested three ballistic missiles at intercontinental reach that demonstrated the potential reach to reach deep into the American homeland. .
Sunday’s test was the North’s 7th round of weapons launches this month. The unusually rapid pace of testing indicates North Korea’s intention to pressure the Biden administration over long-stalled nuclear talks as pandemic-related difficulties unleash further shock to an economy shattered by decades mismanagement and crippling sanctions directed by the United States against its nuclear weapons program.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in called an emergency National Security Council meeting where he described the test as a possible “medium-range ballistic missile launch” that brought North Korea to the brink of breaking its 2018 suspension in nuclear and longer-range device testing. ballistic missiles.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters it was clear the missile was the longest-range weapon the North had tested since launching its Hwasong-15 ICBM in November 2017.
The launch came after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un chaired a ruling party meeting on January 20, during which senior party officials made a veiled threat to lift the moratorium, citing what they perceived as American hostility and threats. In April 2018, Kim said “no nuclear testing or intermediate-range and intercontinental-range ballistic rocket test firings” were no longer needed for the North as he pursued diplomacy with the then US president. , Donald Trump, in an effort to leverage his nuclear weapons for much-needed economic benefits.
The latest details of the missile’s flight suggest that the North Korean moratorium has already been broken, said Lee Choon Geun, a missile expert and honorary researcher at South Korea’s Institute for Science and Technology Policy. He said the data suggests the North tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile or perhaps even a weapon approaching ICBM capabilities.
In his strongest comments to the North in years, Moon said the situation around the Korean Peninsula was starting to look like 2017, when North Korea’s provocative run in nuclear and long-range missile testing took off. resulted in a verbal exchange of war threats between Kim and Trump.
Moon described the North’s latest tests as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions and a “challenge to international society’s efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, stabilize peace and find a diplomatic solution” to the impasse. nuclear.
The North “should stop its actions that create tension and pressure and respond to offers of dialogue from the international community, including South Korea and the United States,” Moon said, according to his office.
Moon, who had ambitiously pushed for inter-Korean engagement, held three summits with Kim in 2018 while pushing to hold Kim’s first summit with Trump in 2018, where they issued vague ambitious goals for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. without describing when and how it would happen. But diplomacy was derailed after the failed second Kim-Trump meeting in 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korea’s request for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, said Sunday’s missile flew for about 30 minutes and landed in waters outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone. There were no immediate reports of damage to boats or planes.
The US Indo-Pacific Command said the United States condemns North Korea’s testing activities and calls on the North to refrain from further acts of destabilization. He said the latest launch “did not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel, territory or that of our allies.”
The launch came three days after North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea on Thursday. The North also flight-tested a pair of alleged long-range cruise missiles on Tuesday while pledging to strengthen its nuclear “war deterrent” and to build more powerful weapons.
Experts say the North may halt its round of testing after the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing next week out of respect for China, its main ally and economic lifeline. But it is also expected that the North could raise the bar for weapon displays significantly once the Olympics are over in February to attract the attention of the Biden administration, which has focused more on confronting China and Russia over its conflict with Ukraine.
“North Korea is launching a missile spree ahead of the start of the Beijing Olympics, mostly as part of military modernization efforts. Pyongyang also wants to boost national pride as it prepares to celebrate political anniversaries in the context of economic struggles,” said Leif-Eric. Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“He wants to remind Washington and Seoul that trying to unseat him would be too costly. By threatening stability in Asia as global resources dwindle elsewhere, Pyongyang is asking the world to compensate it for acting as one.” “responsible nuclear power,” Easley added.
North Korea has justified its testing activity as an exercise of its right to self-defense and threatened to take stronger action after the Biden administration imposed new sanctions following two tests of an alleged hypersonic missile earlier this month.
Desperate for outside help, Kim has shown no willingness to surrender the nuclear weapons and missiles he sees as his best guarantee of survival. Analysts say Kim’s pressure campaign is aimed at forcing Washington to accept the North as a nuclear power and convert its nuclear disarmament diplomacy into aiding negotiations for a mutual arms reduction.
Last year, Kim announced a new five-year weapons development plan and released an ambitious wish list that includes hypersonic weapons, spy satellites, solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched nuclear missiles. .
State media said on Friday that Kim had visited an unspecified munitions factory producing a “major weapons system” and that the workers had sworn loyalty to their leader who “crushes with his bold courage the challenges of the American imperialists and of their vassal forces”.