SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Sunday fired what appeared to be the most powerful missile it has tested since President Joe Biden took office, as it revives its old playbook in brinkmanship to wrest concessions from Washington and neighbors amid a prolonged stalemate in diplomacy.
The Japanese and South Korean militaries said the missile was launched on a lofted trajectory, apparently to avoid the territorial spaces of neighbors, and reached a maximum altitude of 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) and traveled 800 kilometers (497 miles) before landing in the sea.
The flight details suggest the North tested its longest-range ballistic missile since 2017, when it twice flew intermediate-range ballistic missiles over Japan and, separately, three intercontinental ballistic missiles that demonstrated the potential to reach deep into the American homeland.
Sunday’s test was North Korea’s seventh round of 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 put further stress on an economy broken by decades of mismanagement and crippling U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in called an emergency National Security Council meeting where he described the test as a possible “mid-range ballistic missile launch” that brought North Korea to the brink of breaking its 2018 self-imposed moratorium on the testing of nuclear devices and longer-range missiles.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi also told reporters that the missile was the longest-range the North has tested since its Hwasong-15 ICBM in November 2017.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un chaired a ruling party meeting on Jan. 20, where senior party members made a veiled threat to lift the moratorium, citing what they perceived as U.S. hostility and threats.
The latest launch suggests Kim’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.
In his strongest comments toward the North in years, Moon said the situation around the Korean Peninsula is beginning to resemble 2017, when North Korea’s provocative run in nuclear and long-range missile testing resulted in an exchange of war threats between Kim and Trump.
Moon said the North’s latest moves violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and were a “challenge toward the international community’s efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, stabilize peace and find a diplomatic solution” to the nuclear standoff.
The North “should stop its actions that create tensions and pressure and respond to the dialogue offers by the international community including South Korea and the United States,” Moon said, according to his office.
Moon had ambitiously pushed for inter-Korean engagement and held three summits with Kim in 2018 while also lobbying to set up Kim’s first summit with Trump in 2018, where they issued vague aspirations for a nuclear-free peninsula.
But the diplomacy derailed after the collapse of the second Kim-Trump meeting in 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korea’s demand for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Sunday’s missile flew for around 30 minutes and landed in waters outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone. There were no immediate reports of damage to boats or aircraft.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the United States condemned North Korea’s testing activity and called on Pyongyang to refrain from further destabilizing acts. It said the latest launch did not “pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel, territory, or that of our allies.”
Takehiro Funakoshi, director-general for Asian and Oceanian Affairs at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, discussed the launch in separate phone calls with Sung Kim, Biden’s special envoy for North Korea, and Noh Kyu-duk, South Korea’s nuclear envoy. The officials shared an understanding that Sunday’s missile was of enhanced destructive power and reaffirmed trilateral cooperation in the face of the North Korean threat, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said.
Experts say the North could halt its testing spree after the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics next week out of respect for China, its major ally and economic lifeline. But there’s also expectation that it could significantly up the ante in weapons demonstrations once the Olympics end in February to grab the attention of the Biden administration, which has been focusing more on confronting China and Russia over its conflict with Ukraine.
“North Korea is launching a frenzy of missiles before the start of the Beijing Olympics, mostly as military modernization efforts. Pyongyang also wants to boost national pride as it gears up to celebrate political anniversaries in the context of economic struggles,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“It wants to remind Washington and Seoul that trying to topple it would be too costly. By threatening stability in Asia while global resources are stretched thin elsewhere, Pyongyang is demanding the world compensate it to act like a ‘responsible nuclear power,’” Easley added.
North Korea has justified its testing activity as an exercise of its rights to self-defense and threatened stronger action after the Biden administration imposed fresh sanctions following two tests of a purported hypersonic missile earlier this month.
While desperate for outside relief, Kim has showed no willingness to surrender the nuclear weapons and missiles he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival. Analysts say Kim’s pressure campaign is aimed at forcing Washington to accept the North as a nuclear power and convert their nuclear disarmament-for-aid diplomacy into negotiations for mutual arms-reduction.
Kim last year announced a new five-year plan for developing weapons and issued an ambitious wish list that included hypersonic weapons, spy satellites, solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched nuclear missiles.
State media said Friday that Kim visited an unspecified munitions factory producing a “major weapons system,” and that the workers pledged loyalty to their leader who “smashes with his bold pluck the challenges of U.S. imperialists and their vassal forces.”