Japanese defense officials say North Korea’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile test is a next-level threat.
The March 24 ICBM likely crossed the line of Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Officials and experts are trying to assess what is behind Kim Jong Un’s move.
It flew longer – about 71 minutes, according to Japanese officials, or about 67 minutes, according to North Korea. If confirmed as an ICBM, it is Pyongyang’s first launch of the class in more than four years.
The launch came as Group of Seven leaders met in Belgium to discuss the Ukraine crisis.
“The North’s launch of a possible ICBM is an unforgivable act of provocation that Japan strongly condemns,” Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio told reporters in Brussels. “His conduct poses a threat to the peace and security of Japan, the region and the international community.”
North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party newspaper said it was a new type ICBM Hwasong-17, launched at a steeper angle than usual, flying in a high trajectory with maximum altitude over 6,200 kilometres.
Additionally, the North claims the missile traveled 1,090 kilometers and hit a target area in the ocean. Japanese officials said the missile fell into the Sea of Japan, about 150 kilometers west of the northernmost prefecture, Hokkaido. The area is within Japan’s exclusive economic zone and close to its territorial waters.
North Korean state-controlled media hailed the launch as a success, saying North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “stressed that our national defense forces will possess formidable military and technical capabilities, undisturbed by any threats.” military and all blackmail…and would stand fully ready for a long permanent confrontation with the US imperialists.”
The Hwasong-17 is one of the largest transportable ICBMs in the world, sometimes referred to as a “monster missile”. It was first made public during the 2020 military parade.
But South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted its sources as saying the missile was a Hwasong-15, the same type fired in 2017, possibly carrying a lighter warhead to fly it at longer ranges.
Japanese officials say the danger nevertheless remains the same. They say the latest launch shows that North Korea could now have the American mainland within reach if the weapon were fired on a normal trajectory.
North Korea shakes the cage
North Korea has launched 15 ballistic missiles this year alone. By comparison, Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, supervised 16 people over a 17-year period. The newest is probably the first ICBM since November 2017.
Observers are trying to make sense of the recent flurry of activity.
“One of the factors is the deadlock in negotiations with the United States,” said former NHK Seoul bureau chief Ikehata Shuhei.
The leaders of the two countries have not met since 2019, and no summit after the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
In April 2018, Pyongyang announced it was suspending ICBM launches and nuclear testing. But Ikehata says Kim was apparently frustrated that talks between the United States and North Korea were unlikely to resume and that Biden was suggesting even more sanctions.
Ikehata also suggests that the latest launch could also be in response to the South Korean presidential election. Conservative President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol is promising a much tougher stance against North Korea.
“During his campaign, Yoon said that the South should have the ability to make a preemptive strike against the North,” Ikehata explains. “It’s easy to imagine that Pyongyang is not happy about this.”
James Kim, a Korean affairs expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, believes the North Korean leader is appealing to his domestic audience ahead of an important date.
“Next month marks a very important moment for North Korea, the 110th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday,” Kim said. “There are satellite images that suggest Pyongyang appears to be gearing up for a big military parade or some sort of related event.”
He adds that the situation in Ukraine could be another factor. “The international community has turned its attention from the Korean peninsula to Europe. So North Korea wants to kind of shout out, leave its mark and tell the world that it’s still here – trying to suggest that it’s a problem that Washington and the rest of the world needs to address.”