North Korea has claimed that the rocket it test-fired on Wednesday morning is a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] that can strike anywhere on the United States mainland.
In a special announcement broadcast on state TV, the regime said it had successfully tested a Hwasong-15, which appears to be an advanced version of ICBMs it launched in July.
The claim has not been independently verified, but experts had been expecting North Korea to demonstrate that it now has all of the US in range – a development that significantly strengthens its position in any negotiations with Washington over its nuclear weapons programme.
Pyongyang has not, however, proved it has the capability to marry a miniaturised nuclear warhead with a long-range missile and send it at a trajectory that would put US cities in its sights.
South Korea and Japan led condemnation of North Korea’s launch of the missile, which landed off Japan’s coast.
The late-night launch, which triggered a South Korean test-launch in response, reignited tensions in the region after a lull of more than two months.
It was North Korea’s 20th launch of a ballistic missile this year, and possibly its third successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile following two launches in July.
Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, voiced concern that the North’s perfection of an ICBM would send regional security “spiralling out of control” and lead the US to consider launching a pre-emptive strike.
Wednesday morning’s launch launch adds to fears that the North will soon have a military arsenal that can viably target the US mainland.
Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, condemned the missile launch as “intolerable” and called for an emergency meeting of the UN security council. Within hours of the test, Abe and Donald Trump agreed to strengthen their defence capability and to urge China – North Korea’s main ally – to apply more pressure on Pyongyang over its weapons programme.
“We will never give in to provocative acts (by North Korea),” Abe said, adding that the international community would put “maximum pressure” on North Korea.
He said Japan had lodged a “strong protest” with the regime, which he accused of ignoring other nations’ “united, strong will for a peaceful solution”. He added: “The international community needs to work in unison to fully implement sanctions.”
The Pentagon issued a statement saying that the weapon tested was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Initial reports from Seoul suggested that it came from a mobile launcher and was fired at about 3am local time.
The missile was reported to have flown for 50 minutes on a very high trajectory, reaching 4,500 km above the earth (more than 10 times higher than the orbit of Nasa’s International Space Station) before coming down nearly 1,000 km from the launch site off the west coast of Japan.
This would make it the most powerful of the three ICBMs North Korea has tested so far.
David Wright, a physicist and missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, calculated that on a normal trajectory, rather than a high lofted one, the missile would have a range of 13,000 km, enough to reach Washington, the rest of the US west coast, Europe or Australia.
Furthermore, the mobile night launch appeared aimed at testing new capabilities and demonstrating that Pyongyang would be able to strike back after any attempt at a preventative strike against the regime.
“It went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken,” James Mattis, the US defence secretary, told reporters. “It’s a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten anywhere in the world.”
Mattis added the North Korean missile programme “threatens world peace, regional peace and certainly the United States”.
President Trump, who had insisted that North Korean development of an ICBM would not happen during his presidency, said: “We will take care of it … it is a situation that we will handle.”
“The missile was launched from Sain Ni, North Korea, and travelled about 1,000 km before splashing down in the Sea of Japan, within Japan’s economic exclusion zone. We are working with our interagency partners on a more detailed assessment of the launch,” Pentagon spokesman Col Robert Manning said.
Within minutes of the launch, the South Korean joint chiefs of staff announced Seoul had carried out an exercise involving the launch of a “precision strike” missile, signalling that it was primed to respond immediately to any attack from the North.
Manning said: “The North American Aerospace Defense Command determined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America, our territories or our allies”
Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, condemned the launch and added: “Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now. The United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearisation and to ending belligerent actions by North Korea.”
It was the first North Korean ballistic missile test since 15 September and followed a warning earlier this month from Donald Trump that North Korean threats to strike the US and its allies would be a “fatal miscalculation”.