North Korea launched a possible intercontinental ballistic missile on Monday morning in what analysts said indicated the growing reliability of the reclusive state’s illegal weapons program.
The missile launched Monday exhibited the range to hit anywhere in the United States, according to a preliminary assessment from the Japanese Defense Ministry.
“The ICBM-class ballistic missile launched this time, if calculated based on the trajectory, depending on weight of warhead, could have a flying range of over 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles), meaning the whole of the US territory would be within range,” Shingo Miyake, parliamentary vice-minister of defense, told reporters at a news conference in Tokyo.
Japanese authorities reported the missile flew at a highly lofted trajectory for about 73 minutes and to an altitude of 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) and a distance of about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) before falling into the sea west of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
If would need to be fired at a flatter trajectory to hit the United States.
And that’s an ability Pyongyang has yet to prove, according to Joseph Dempsey, research associate for defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“While lofted tests can provide assurances of full engine burns and staging, they do not represent the same challenges of a normal ICBM trajectory. This includes the ability of the warhead to survive a prolonged shallower reentry into the atmosphere or its accuracy over much longer distances,” Dempsey told CNN.
While the type of missile fired was not reported, Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said Monday’s test was likely the third of the Hwasong-18 missile, a powerful solid-fueled ICBM North Korea also launched in April and July.
It shows a maturing North Korean missile program, according to Lewis.
“If this is indeed the third successful flight test in a row, that would be a good record of reliability,” he told CNN.
“While North Korea, like every country, has missile tests fail, it’s clear that the overall reliability of North Korea’s missiles is quite respectable,” Lewis said.
Kim said after the April test that the Hwasong-18 would provide the country with a “powerful strategic attack means” and boost its nuclear capabilities.
The ICBM fired in July flew about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), staying airborne for 74 minutes, according to Japan’s Defense Ministry – a marginal advancement on the ballistic missiles North Korea tested earlier in the year.
Pyongyang tested the liquid-fueled Hwasong-17 ICBM in March.
The Hwasong-17 was unveiled in 2022, when North Korea held its first long-range missile test in more than four years. Liquid-fuel technology is comparatively easier to master.
The Hwasong-18, meanwhile, is a solid-fueled missile, according to Pyongyang – which makes it far more advanced, and would allow North Korea to launch long-range nuclear strikes more quickly.
Solid-fueled ICBMs are more stable, and can be moved more easily to avoid detection before a launch that can be initiated in a matter of minutes, experts say – compared to liquid-fueled missiles that may need hours before launch, giving time for adversaries to detect and neutralize the weapon.
North Korea’s advancement from the Hwasong-17 last year to the Hwasong-18 this year suggests its missile program is making progress, experts say, reflecting Kim’s goal of matching the military capabilities of other nations like the United States or European countries.
Successive launches allow North Korea to gather more data to refine its missile technology.
Monday’s launch was North Korea’s second of a ballistic missile in less than 24 hours. On Sunday night, a short-range ballistic missile was launched toward the waters off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
That missile flew about 570 kilometers before falling into the water, the JCS said.
Shortly after Seoul reported the missile launch, North Korean state media KCNA published a statement by the country’s Defense Ministry spokesperson, condemning what they called “reckless military provocations” by the US and South Korea.
The spokesperson cited the meeting of the Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) in Washington on December 15, in which the US and South Korea announced the establishment of an extended deterrence system by the middle of next year and large-scale joint military exercises next August.
The spokesperson also cited the arrival of the US attack submarine USS Missouri in South Korea last week, claiming Washington has “hatched a dangerous plot for a nuclear war.”
North Korea’s testing and strong rhetoric may be playing into Washington’s hands, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“The North Korean threat is motivating greater trilateral cooperation among the US, Japan, and South Korea, including real-time sharing of missile tracking data. Officials in Seoul knew this ICBM test was coming, and had coordinated in advance with partners in Washington and Tokyo,” he said.