SEOUL, South Korea, May 15, (Agencies): North Korea on Monday boasted of a successful weekend launch of a new type of “medium long-range” ballistic rocket that can carry a heavy nuclear warhead. Outsiders also saw a significant technological jump, with the test-fire apparently flying higher and for a longer time period than any other such previous missile.
Amid condemnation in Seoul, Tokyo, Washington and Moscow, a jubilant North Korean leader Kim Jong Un promised more nuclear and missile tests and warned that his country’s weapons could strike the US mainland and Pacific holdings. North Korean propaganda must be considered with wariness — Pyongyang has threatened for decades to reduce Seoul to a “sea of fire,” for instance — but Monday’s claim, if confirmed, would mark another big advance toward the North’s goal of fielding a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the US mainland. Some experts, including officials in Tokyo, estimate that Sunday’s launch successfully tested a new type of missile, potentially the longest in North Korea’s arsenal. The test is also an immediate challenge to South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, a liberal elected last week who expressed a desire to reach out to North Korea.
Pyongyang’s aggressive push to boost its weapons program also makes it one of the Trump administration’s most urgent foreign policy worries, though Washington has struggled to settle on a policy. North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency called the missile a “new ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket,” and said the “Hwasong-12” was “capable of carrying a large, heavy nuclear warhead.” Kim witnessed the test and “hugged officials in the field of rocket research, saying that they worked hard to achieve a great thing,” according to KCNA.
The rocket, “newly designed in a Korean-style,” flew 787 kilometers (490 miles) and reached a maximum altitude of 2,111 kilometers (1,310 miles), the North said, and “verified the homing feature of the warhead under the worst re-entry situation and accurate performance of detonation system.” South Korea’s Defense Ministry said more analysis is needed to verify the North’s claim on the rocket’s technological features.
Spokesman Moon Sang Gyun said it’s still unlikely that North Korea has re-entry technology, which would return a warhead safely back into the atmosphere. Japanese officials said Sunday that the missile flew for half an hour and reached an unusually high altitude before landing in the Sea of Japan. Several South Korean analysts, including Lee Illwoo, a Seoul-based commentator on military issues, said the missile flew higher and for a longer period than any other the North has ever test-fired.
North Korea has also launched satellites into orbit on long-range rockets that share some of the same technology as missiles. North Korea is not thought to be able yet to make a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on a long-range missile, though some outside analysts think it can arm shorter-range missiles with warheads.
Each new nuclear and longer-range missile test is part of the North’s attempt to build a nucleartipped intercontinental ballistic missile. Kim said North Korea would stage more nuclear and missile tests in order to perfect nuclear bombs needed to deal with US “nuclear blackmail.” State media paraphrased North Korea’s leader as saying that “the most perfect weapon systems in the world will never become the eternal exclusive property of the US,” warning that “the US should not … disregard or misjudge the reality that its mainland and Pacific operation region are in (North Korea’s) sighting range for strike.”
The launch complicates the new South Korean president’s plan to talk to the North, and came as US, Japanese and European navies gather for joint war games in the Pacific. “The president expressed deep regret over the fact that this reckless provocation … occurred just days after a new government was launched in South Korea,” senior presidential secretary Yoon Young-chan said.
“The president said we are leaving open the possibility of dialogue with North Korea, but we should sternly deal with a provocation to prevent North Korea from miscalculating.” Moon, South Korea’s first liberal leader in nearly a decade, said as he took his oath of office last week that he’d be willing to visit North Korea if the circumstances were right. Meanwhile, North Korea said on Monday it had successfully conducted a mid- to-long-range missile test and would continue such launches “any time, any place”, defying UN Security Council resolutions and warnings from the United States.
“The test-firing of ICBMs will occur at any time and place, at the will of North Korea’s highest leadership,” North Korea’s ambassador to China, Ji Jae Ryong, told reporters in Beijing on Monday, a day before the UN Security Council meets in New York to discuss the test. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that North Korea’s latest missile test was “dangerous”, but he warned that Pyongyang was being intimidated and called for a peaceful solution to regional tensions.
“We are categorically against the expansion of the club of nuclear powers,” Putin told reporters after an international forum in Beijing. “We consider (the missile test) counter-productive, harmful and dangerous,” Putin said. But, he added: “We must stop intimidating North Korea and find a peaceful solution to this problem.”