North Korea says it test-fired its biggest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on the orders of leader Kim Jong Un to boost its defences and prepare for a “long confrontation” with the United States, state media reported on Friday.
Kim, dressed in a black leather jacket and sunglasses, oversaw the Thursday launch of what was described as a “new-type” of ICBM, the Hwasong-17.
The first full ICBM test by nuclear-armed North Korea since 2017 drew swift condemnation from South Korea and Japan, as well as the US. United Nations chief Antonio Guterres condemned the launch as a “clear violation” of Security Council resolutions.
According to state media, the weapon was launched from Pyongyang International Airport, travelled up to a maximum altitude of 6,248 km (3,880 miles) and flew a distance of 1,090 km (680 miles) during a 67-minute flight before falling into the Sea of Japan.
Kim ordered the test because of the “daily-escalating military tension in and around the Korean peninsula” and the “inevitability of the long-standing confrontation with the US imperialists accompanied by the danger of a nuclear war,” the official news agency for North Korea, KCNA, reported.
“The emergence of the new strategic weapon of the DPRK would make the whole world clearly aware of the power of our strategic armed forces once again,” Kim said.
“Any forces should be made to be well aware of the fact that they will have to pay a very dear price before daring to attempt to infringe upon the security of our country,” he added, according to KCNA.
North Korea has carried out nearly a dozen missile tests since the start of the year that analysts say are aimed at forcing the US to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and remove the international sanctions that had crippled the economy even before Pyongyang sealed its borders because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“South Korea has already launched missiles in response, and the US and South Korea are expected to respond to North Korea’s provocations through military exercises,” Kim Jong-ha, a security analyst at Hannam University in South Korea, told Al Jazeera. “As a result, inter-Korea and US-North Korea relations will be strained for the time being.”
‘Ambitions exceed self-defence’
The latest launch comes at a particularly delicate time.
Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s newly-elected conservative president who has promised a more robust policy towards Pyongyang, is due to take office in May, while the attention of the US, the South’s key ally, is focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The Kim regime is determined not only to keep South Korea hostage to military threats that can evade Seoul’s missile defenses and preemptive strike capabilities; it aims to expand its nuclear reach over the American homeland to deter Washington from coming to the defense of U.S. allies,” Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said in an email. “North Korea is nowhere near initiating aggression on the scale of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But Pyongyang’s ambitions likewise exceed self-defense as it wants to overturn the postwar security order in Asia.”
The UN Security Council is expected to hold an emergency meeting on the test on Friday, but condemnation or new sanctions could be hard to achieve amid divisions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s veto.
Late on Thursday in the US, Washington announced new sanctions in relation to North Korea’s illicit weapons programme, targeting two Russian companies, a Russian and a North Korean, as well as North Korea’s Second Academy of Natural Science Foreign Affairs Bureau.
“These measures are part of our ongoing efforts to impede the DPRK’s ability to advance its missile program and they highlight the negative role Russia plays on the world stage as a proliferator to programs of concern,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
Believed to be about 25 metres (82 feet) long, the Hwasong-17 was first revealed in a military parade in October 2020. North Korea’s longest-range weapon and, by some estimates, the world’s biggest road-mobile ballistic missile system, Thursday’s launch was its first full-range test.
South Korea’s military estimated its range as 6,200 kilometres (3,800 miles), further than the Hwasong-15 that was the last ICBM to be tested in October 2017.
KCNA called the successful test a “striking demonstration of great military muscle”, while Kim said it was a “miraculous” and “priceless” victory by the Korean people.
Analysts say the drive for a successful launch of the weapon is probably part of Pyongyang’s preparations to mark the 110th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il Sung on April 15.
North Korea typically celebrates such key anniversaries with weapons tests and parades of military might.
“Kim Jong Un wants to ultimately establish himself as a leader who has successfully developed both nuclear weapons and ICBMs,” Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean studies scholar, told the AFP news agency.
“He is almost desperate as without such military achievements, he really hasn’t done much.”