In a new provocation, North Korea successfully test-fired a ballistic missile that traveled some 450 miles over the Sea of Japan early Sunday morning. While analysts aren’t yet sure what kind of missile it was, U.S. Pacific Command tracked the launch and reported that the flight pattern indicates it was not an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. The land-fired missile, which was launched from a site in the northwestern region of Kusong, had a flight time of around 30 minutes, according to the Japanese military.
The exact type of missile and its potential range won’t be clear until the test data is confirmed and analysts can go over it, but the test may still represent an advancement of North Korea’s missile program. Indeed, some nonproliferation experts are already concerned that, looking at preliminary reports about the missile’s trajectory and flight time, it’s at least possible it was the longest range missile North Korea has ever tested — even if it wasn’t one capable of hitting the U.S.
The launch comes days after South Korea’s newly elected liberal president, Moon Jae-in, took office on Wednesday. Consistent with his party’s policy proposal favoring engagement, President Moon subsequently called for a dialogue with the North to discuss ending its nuclear-weapon program and volunteered to travel there if necessary; Moon also warned that continued military provocations would make that new engagement more difficult. It should be noted that this is not the first time North Korea has responded to the prospect of negotiations with threats or supposed shows of strength.
President Moon condemned Sunday’s launch and called an urgent meeting of his national security council, while Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe also condemned the test, calling it and previous tests “a grave threat to our country and are in clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
The other interesting dynamic to the timing of the test is that on Saturday a top North Korean diplomat told reporters in Beijing that Pyongyang would be willing to meet with the Trump administration “if the conditions are set” — but did not elaborate on what those conditions would be.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster briefed President Trump about the launch on Saturday night, and the White House later released a statement, declaring that North Korea “has been a flagrant menace for far too long” and calling for stronger sanctions against the country. The statement also oddly attempts to link the threat to Russia, noting that “with the missile impacting so close to Russian soil — in fact, closer to Russia than to Japan — the President cannot imagine that Russia is pleased.”
Since taking office, Trump has at times adopted hardline rhetoric in threatening North Korea over further missile and nuclear tests, raising tensions in the area significantly. In an interview late last month, however, Trump expressed his admiration for how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was able to assume power in North Korea, calling the authoritarian leader a “smart cookie.” This month, Trump said that “under the right circumstances” he would be “honored” to meet with Kim Jong Un to defuse tensions, though White House officials later tried to walk the comment back. In fact, there have been a few contradictory statements from Trump administration officials on the matter. No sitting American president has ever met with a North Korean head of state.
Since the crisis escalated this spring, presenting the first real national security threat for the Trump White House, administration officials have reportedly sought to pressure China to help rein in North Korea’s missile program, which has been rapidly advancing in recent years. It is not clear if that pressure has had any effect, nor is it clear if the North Korean diplomat’s remark on Saturday was meant as a reply to Trump or President Moon.
Sunday’s test was the tenth North Korean missile to be fired this year across six separate tests. It follows two failed launches of land-based missiles last month. Kim Jong Un has been accelerating the country’s efforts to develop an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. over the past few years, but so far it has been unable to successfully do that, or least demonstrate so. The country is believed to be developing at least two types of ICBMs and may have tested missiles from one of those programs last October on the same site where Sunday’s missile was launched. (The U.S. military believes those missiles had only intermediate range.)
Kim Jong Un’s regime also displayed a troubling new array of missiles systems, including launchers that could be used to discreetly transport and launch solid-state ICBMs, at an annual military parade last month in Pyongyang.
This post has been updated to include the White House’s statement on the launch.