North Korea fired what appeared to be the most powerful missile it has tested since the US president, Joe Biden, took office, possibly breaching a self-imposed suspension on the testing of longer-range weapons and sparking condemnation from the United States and its allies.
The Japanese and South Korean militaries said the missile launched on Sunday travelled on a lofted trajectory, apparently to avoid the territorial spaces of neighbours, and reached a maximum altitude of 2,000km (1,242 miles) and traveled 800km (497 miles) before landing in the sea.
The flight details suggest North Korea tested its longest-range ballistic missile since 2017, when it twice flew intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) over Japan and separately flight-tested three intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that demonstrated the potential range to reach deep into the American homeland.
Sunday’s test was North Korea’s seventh round of weapons launches this month. The unusually fast pace of tests indicates its intent to pressure the Biden administration over long-stalled nuclear negotiations as pandemic-related difficulties unleash further shock on an economy broken by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.
“The United States condemns these actions and calls on [North Korea] to refrain from further destabilising acts,” the US military’s Indo-Pacific command said in a statement after Sunday’s launch.
The South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, called an emergency national security council meeting, where he described the test as a possible “midrange ballistic missile launch” that brought North Korea to the brink of breaking its 2018 suspension in the testing of nuclear devices and longer-range ballistic missiles.
The Japanese defence minister, Nobuo Kishi, told reporters it was clear that the missile was the longest-range weapon the North has tested since launching its Hwasong-15 ICBM in November 2017.
The launch came after the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, chaired a ruling party meeting on 20 January where senior party members made a veiled threat to lift the moratorium, citing what they perceived as US hostility and threats.
Kim in April 2018 declared that “no nuclear test and intermediate-range and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire” were necessary for the North any longer as he pursued diplomacy with then-US president Donald Trump in an attempt to leverage his nukes for badly needed economic benefits.
The latest missile’s flight details suggest that North Korea’s moratorium is already broken, said Lee Choon Geun, a missile expert and honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute.
He said the data suggests that the North tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile or possibly even a weapon approaching ICBM capacities.
George William Herbert, an adjunct professor at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and a missile consultant, said on Twitter: “Regardless of whether it’s a IRBM or ICBM, this is a strategic missile of some sort and clearly not the same as the prior tests in the January 2022 test series to date.”
The launch could make January the busiest ever for North Korea’s missile program which analysts say is expanding and developing new capabilities despite strict sanctions and UN security council resolutions that ban the country’s ballistic missile tests.
“All signs suggest this is a big test – not performing as well as prior North Korean ICBMs, but could have been deliberately flown on a more limited trajectory,” said Chad O’Carroll, the chief executive of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.
The test comes less than a week before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, with the host China being North Korea’s main political and economic partner. Pyongyang has said it would be skipping the Games because of the Covid-19 pandemic and “hostile forces”.
This month, North Korea has tested a dizzying array of weapon types, launch locations and increasing sophistication.
From hypersonic missiles and long-range cruise missiles, to missiles launched from railcars and airports, the tests highlight the nuclear-armed state’s rapidly expanding and advancing arsenal amid stalled denuclearisation talks.
“The ballistic missile launch and the ones before it are a threat to our country, the region and the international community,” Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, said.
“This series of launches violate UN resolutions and we strongly protest [against] this action by North Korea.”
The tests appear aimed at modernising North Korea’s military, bolstering national pride ahead of several major North Korean holidays and sending a message of strength as the country grapples with economic crises caused by sanctions and Covid-19 lockdowns, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul.
“The Kim regime hears external discussions of its domestic weaknesses and sees South Korea’s growing strength,” he said. “So it wants to remind Washington and Seoul that trying to topple it would be too costly.”
Its latest launches included a test of two short-range ballistic missiles and their warheads on Thursday, and an update to a long-range cruise missile system was tested on Tuesday.
Pyongyang has defended the launches as its sovereign right of self-defence and say they are not directed at any specific country, but accused Washington and Seoul of having “hostile policies.”
Kim visited a munitions factory last week, where he called for “an all-out drive” to produce “powerful cutting-edge arms”, and its workers touted his devotion to “smashing … the challenges of the US imperialists and their vassal forces” seeking to violate their right to self-defence, calling it “the harshest-ever adversity”.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report