SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea conducted what may be its most successful missile test yet on Tuesday, firing an intermediate-range weapon that could be powerful enough to reach Alaska. It’s Pyongyang’s latest step in a push for nuclear weapons capable of hitting any part of the United States.
While some details are still unclear, the launch seems designed to send a political warning to Washington and its chief Asian allies, Seoul and Tokyo, even as it allows North Korean scientists a chance to perfect their still-incomplete nuclear missile program. It came on the eve of the U.S. Independence Day holiday, days after the first face-to-face meeting of the leaders of South Korea and the United States, and ahead of a global summit of the world’s richest economies.
Officials say the missile fired from North Phyongan province, in the North’s western region, flew for about 40 minutes, which would be longer than any other similar tests previously reported, and covered about 930 kilometers (580 miles). South Korean analysts say it’s likely that it was a retest of one of two intermediate-range missiles launched earlier this year.
Once U.S. missile scientist, David Wright, estimated that the missile, if the reported time and distance are correct, could have a possible maximum range of 6,700 kilometers (4,160 miles), which could put Alaska in its range if fired at a normal trajectory.
North Korea has a reliable arsenal of shorter-range missiles, but is still trying to perfect its longer-range missiles. Some analysts believe North Korea has the technology to arm its short-range missiles with nuclear warheads, but it’s unclear if it has mastered the technology needed to build an atomic bomb that can fit on a long-range missile. It has yet to test an ICBM, though it has previously conducted long-range satellite launches that critics say are covers meant to test missile technology.
President Donald Trump responded on Twitter: “North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
“This guy” presumably refers to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. China is North Korea’s economic lifeline and only major ally, and the Trump administration is pushing Beijing to do more to push the North toward disarmament.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga suggested the altitude of this missile might have been higher than earlier tests. He did not give further details, including the distance of the flight and where the missile landed.
Just last week South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump met for the first time and vowed to oppose North Korea’s development of atomic weapons.
Japan’s government said the missile was believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan, but no damage to ships or aircraft in the area was reported.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sharply criticized North Korea for the launch. “The latest launch clearly showed that the threat is growing,” Abe said.
Abe, who talked by phone with Trump on Monday, said the two leaders plan to seek cooperation from world leaders when they attend a G20 summit in Germany.
Lee Illwoo, a Seoul-based military commentator, said the missile traveled for a far longer period of time than if it would have been fired at a normal angle. A North Korean scud-type missile, with a range of 800-900 kilometers, would land in its target site within 10 minutes if fired at a standard angle of 45 degrees. Lee said it’s likely that North Korea fired either Hwasong-12 missile or a solid-fuel Pukguksong-2, both of which were tested in May.
On May 14, North Korea launched the Hwasong-12 missile, which its state media later said flew as high as 2,111 kilometers (1,310 miles) and landed in a targeted area in the ocean about 787 kilometers (490 miles) from the launch site. On May 21, North Korea also tested the Pukguksong-2, which traveled about 500 kilometers (310 miles).
China’s U.N. ambassador, Liu Jieyi, warned Monday that further escalation of already high tensions with North Korea risks getting out of control, “and the consequences would be disastrous.”
The Korean Peninsula has been divided between the American-backed South and the authoritarian North since before the 1950-53 Korean War. Almost 30,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea.
Tuesday’s launch is the first by the North since a June 8 test of a new type of cruise missile that Pyongyang says is capable of striking U.S. and South Korean warships “at will.”
Since taking office on May 10, Moon has tried to improve strained ties with North Korea, but the North has continued its missile tests. Pyongyang says it needs nuclear weapons and powerful missiles to cope with what it calls rising U.S. military threats.