North Korea on Friday said it launched an ICBM to “instill fear in the enemy” as South Korea and Japan agreed at a summit to work closely with the United States on regional security and conduct military exercises in the region.
The missile, fired from North Korea’s main airport on Thursday as leader Kim Jong Un and his daughter smiled from afar, overshadowed a summit between South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held hours later. The Tokyo meeting was aimed in part at rebuilding security ties between the often-estranged US allies in the face of North Korea’s nuclear threat.
With four missile displays in about a week, North Korea has stepped up its response to ongoing US-South Korean military exercises, which are the largest of their kind in years.
A Hwasong-17 ICBM is launched at Pyongyang International Airport on March 16, 2023. KCNA/AFP-Getty Images
The Biden administration wants better ties between South Korea and Japan, which have dwindled in recent years due to historic troubles, as it pushes to strengthen its alliance network in Asia to counter the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and increasing Chinese influence.
Aside from their combined drills that began Monday and will run through March 23, the United States and South Korea are also participating in anti-submarine drills that began Wednesday, along with Japan, Canada and India.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said Kim monitored the test firing of the Hwasong-17 missile, which was fired from a launch vehicle parked on an airport runway. Kim stressed the need to “terrify the enemies” over the so-called “open hostility” that the US-South Korea drills are inflicting on the North.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un witnessed the launch. KCNA/AFP-Getty Images
The missile, which was launched at a high angle to avoid the territory of North Korea’s neighbors, reached a maximum altitude of 3,756 miles and traveled 621 miles before landing in waters off the country’s east coast, KCNA said.
The South Korean and Japanese military gave similar assessments of the flight, stating that the US mainland is within range of the missile. It remains unclear whether North Korea has developed nuclear bombs small enough to fit on its long-range missiles, or the technology to ensure its warheads survive re-entry into the atmosphere when fired on a normal trajectory.
State television showed the launch from a variety of angles, including footage from a video camera apparently installed on the missile body, which provided an aerial view of the missile rising from above amid bright orange flames before its lower chamber crashed into what appeared to be a stage separation.
Pyongyang official Rodong Sinmun also released still images allegedly captured by a camera on the rocket as it ascended into space. They showed a rounded view of Earth with clouds scattered across what appeared to be the Korean Peninsula and the Asian coast.
Kim was accompanied by his daughter, who is believed to be Kim Ju Ae and is around 10 years old. She has accompanied him to several military events since she was first shown publicly at another ICBM launch in November. Analysts say the intent of their public appearances at military events is to link the Kim family’s dynastic rule to the nuclear arsenal that Kim sees as the strongest guarantee of his survival.
The high-altitude photos were apparently intended as evidence that the missile would be able to accurately hit its target, said Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior analyst at South Korea’s private Sejong Institute.
While all of North Korea’s ICBM tests have been conducted at a high angle, Cheong said the North is approaching the launch of one of these missiles at an angle closer to the normal ballistic trajectory over the Pacific, in what would be one of the largest provocative weapons demonstrations of all times.
KCNA said the ICBM launch sent a “stronger warning” to North Korea’s rivals escalating tensions with their “frantic, provocative and aggressive large-scale war drills.” The test was also designed to confirm the reliability of the weapon system, KCNA said.
Kim said it is critical for North Korea’s nuclear missile forces to maintain a readiness to counter rivals “with overwhelming offensive measures at all times” and make them understand that their continued and expanded military actions “pose an irreversible, serious threat to them,” KCNA said.
Lee Hyojung, spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which oversees inter-Korean affairs, said it was deeply regrettable that the North continued to use US-South Korea military exercises as a pretext for provocative military demonstrations.
“It is clear that North Korea’s reckless nuclear and missile development is at the root of escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula,” she said, urging Pyongyang to return to dialogue.
Speaking in Singapore on Thursday, the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral John Aquilino, said China has a role to play in the world in adhering to the rules-based order, particularly with regard to North Korea dependent on Beijing as its main ally and economic lifeline.
North Korea’s ramped-up weapons development, underscored by the dozens of missiles it has tested over the past year, poses a growing threat to South Korea and Japan, and the country has also “developed the capabilities to threaten the United States as well,” Aquilino said.
“It’s destabilizing, it’s unpredictable, it’s going on, it’s not slowing down. The potential for the People’s Republic of China to help dissuade the DPRK from conducting these events would be helpful,” Aquilino said, using the initials of North Korea’s official name.
North Korea has long portrayed the US-South Korean military drills as rehearsals for an invasion, although allies describe the drills as defensive.
Many experts say North Korea is using its rivals’ exercises as an excuse to aggressively expand its nuclear arsenal and overall military capabilities.
As of last week, North Korea has also been testing cruise missiles from a submarine and firing short-range missiles into the sea to show it could conduct potential nuclear strikes on both South Korean targets and the US mainland.
Thursday’s launch was North Korea’s second ICBM this year. Introduced in February, the Hwasong-15 is a slightly smaller weapon than the Hwasong-17.
At the Yoon-Kishida summit, leaders agreed to resume defense dialogue and further strengthen security cooperation with the United States to confront North Korea and other challenges.
“The ever-escalating threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear missile program poses a tremendous threat to peace and stability, not only in East Asia but also to the (broader) international community,” Yoon said. “South Korea and Japan must work closely and in solidarity to face the threat wisely.”