North Korea said on Wednesday it had successfully tested a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach all of the U.S. mainland.
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The missile test, North Korea’s first since mid-September, came a week after U.S. President Donald Trump put North Korea back on a U.S. list of countries it says support terrorism, allowing it to impose more sanctions.
North Korea has conducted dozens of ballistic missile tests under its leader, Kim Jong Un, in defiance of international sanctions. Trump has vowed not to let North Korea develop nuclear missiles that can hit the mainland United States.
In a broadcast on state TV, North Korea said the new powerful missile reached an altitude of around 4,475 kilometers (2,780 miles) - more than 10 times the height of the international space station - and flew 950 kilometers (600 miles) during its 53 minute flight.
After watching the successful launch of the new type ICBM Hwasong-15, Kim Jong Un declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power, according to a statement read by a television presenter.
Ballistic experts have calculated that, assuming that the missile in fact reached an altitude of 4,000 kilometers and traveled for 50 minutes, if it had been fired at the proper angle, it would have been able to travel 10,000 to 13,000 kilometers, a range covering wide swathes of the United States, including the East Coast.
However, U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials all agreed the missile, which landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan, was likely an ICBM but it did not pose a threat to the United States, its territories or allies, the Pentagon said.
“It went higher frankly than any previous shot they’ve taken, a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten everywhere in the world, basically,” U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters at the White House.
In response to the launch, Trump told reporters at the White House: "I can only tell you that we will take care of it. It is a situation that we will handle."
In the statement North Korea described itself as a “responsible nuclear power,” but warned its strategic weapons were developed to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity from “the U.S. imperialists’ nuclear blackmail policy and nuclear threat.”
Resuming its torrid testing pace in pursuit of its goal of a viable arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles that can hit the U.S. mainland, the latest test had been widely expected. However, the apparent power and suddenness of the new test still jolted the Korean Peninsula and Washington.
The launch at 3:17 a.m. local time and midday in the U.S. capital indicated an effort to perfect the element of surprise and to obtain maximum attention in the United States.
The firing is a clear message of defiance aimed at the Trump administration. It also ruins nascent diplomatic efforts, raises fears of war or a pre-emptive U.S. strike and casts a deeper shadow over the security of the Winter Olympics early next year in South Korea.
A rattled Seoul responded by almost immediately launching three of its own missiles in a show of force. The South's president, Moon Jae-in, expressed worry that North Korea's growing missile threat could force the United States to attack the North before it masters a nuclear-tipped long-range missile, something experts say may be imminent.
"If North Korea completes a ballistic missile that could reach from one continent to another, the situation can spiral out of control," Moon said at an emergency meeting in Seoul, according to his office. "We must stop a situation where North Korea miscalculates and threatens us with nuclear weapons or where the United States considers a pre-emptive strike."
Moon, a liberal who has been forced into a more hawkish stance by a stream of North Korean weapons tests, has repeatedly declared that there can be no U.S. attack on the North without Seoul's approval, but many here worry that Washington may act without South Korean input.
The missile also appears to improve on North Korea's past launches. A big unknown, however, is the missile's payload. If, as expected, it carried a light mock warhead, then its effective range would have been shorter, analysts said.
The UN Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting for Wednesday afternoon at the request of Japan, the U.S. and South Korea.