North Korea confirms ICBM test, warns of more powerful steps

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North Korea said Sunday its latest intercontinental ballistic missile test was meant to further bolster its “fatal” nuclear attack capacity against its rivals, as it threatened additional powerful steps in response to the planned military training between the United States and South Korea.

Saturday’s ICBM test, the North’s first missile test since Jan. 1, signals its leader Kim Jong Un is using his rivals’ drills as a chance to expand his country’s nuclear capability to enhance its leverage in future dealings with the United States. An expert says North Korea may seek to hold regular operational exercises involving its ICBMs.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said its launch of the existing Hwasong-15 ICBM was organized “suddenly” without prior notice at Kim’s direct order.

KCNA said the launch was designed to verify the weapon’s reliability and the combat readiness of the country’s nuclear force. It said the missile was fired at a high angle and reached a maximum altitude of about 5,770 kilometers (3,585 miles), flying a distance of about 990 kilometers (615 miles) during a 67-minute flight before accurately hitting a pre-set area in the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

The steep-angle launch was apparently aimed at avoiding neighboring countries. The flight details reported by North Korea, which roughly matched the launch information previously assessed by its neighbors, show the weapon is theoretically capable of reaching the mainland U.S. if fired at a standard trajectory.

The Hwasong-15 launch demonstrated the North’s “powerful physical nuclear deterrent” and its efforts to “turn its capacity of fatal nuclear counterattack on the hostile forces” into an extremely strong one that cannot be countered, KCNA said.

Whether North Korea has a functioning nuclear-tipped ICBM is still a source of outside debate, as some experts say the North hasn’t mastered a technology to protect warheads from the severe conditions of atmospheric reentry. The North has claimed to have acquired such a technology.

The Hwasong-15 is one of North Korea’s three existing ICBMs, all of which use liquid propellants that require pre-launch injections and cannot remain fueled for extended periods. The North is pushing to build a solid-fueled ICBM, which would be more mobile and harder-to-detect before its launch.

“Kim Jong Un has likely determined that the technical reliability of the country’s liquid propellant ICBM force has been sufficiently tested and evaluated to now allow for regular operational exercises of this kind,” said Ankit Panda, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University in South Korea, said that North Korea appeared to have launched an upgraded version of the Hwasong-15 ICBM. Chang said the information provided by North Korea showed the missile will likely have a longer potential range than the standard Hwasong-15.

The North’s launch came a day after it vowed an “unprecedentedly” strong response over a series of military drills that Seoul and Washington plan in coming weeks.

In a separate statement Sunday, Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of Kim Jong Un, accused South Korea and the United States of “openly showing their dangerous greed and attempt to gain the military upper hand and predominant position in the Korean Peninsula.”

“I warn that we will watch every movement of the enemy and take corresponding and very powerful and overwhelming counteraction against its every move hostile to us,” she said.

North Korea has steadfastly slammed regular South Korea-U.S. military trainings as an invasion rehearsal though the allies say their exercises are defensive in nature. Some analysts say North Korea often uses South Korea-U.S. drills as a pretext to modernize its weapons arsenals, which it believes is essential to win sanctions relief from the U.S.

“By now, we know that any action taken by the U.S. and South Korea — however justified from the vantage point of defense and deterrence against (North Korea’s) reckless behavior — will be construed and protested as an act of hostility by North Korea,” said Soo Kim, a security analyst at the California-based RAND Corporation. “There will always be fodder for (Kim Jong Un’s) weapons provocations.”

“With nuclear weapons in tow and having mastered the art of coercion and bullying, Kim does not need ‘self-defense.’ But pitting the U.S. and South Korea as the aggressors allows Kim to justify his weapons development,” Soo Kim said.

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the U.S. will take all necessary measures to ensure the security of the American homeland and South Korea and Japan. South Korea’s presidential National Security Council said it will seek to strengthen its “overwhelming response capacity” against potential North Korean aggression based on the military alliance with the United States.

The South Korean and U.S. militaries plan to hold a table-top exercise this week to hone a joint response to a potential use of nuclear weapons by North Korea. The allies are also to conduct another joint computer simulated exercise and field training in March.

The foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan, meeting on the sidelines of a security conference in Germany on Saturday, agreed to boost a trilateral cooperation involving the United States and exchanged in-depth views on the issue of Japan’s colonial-era mobilization of forced Korean laborers — a key sticking point in efforts to improve their ties, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.

South Korea and Japan are both key U.S. allies but often spat over issues stemming from Tokyo’s 1910-45 colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula. But North Korea’s recent missile testing spree is pushing the two countries to explore how to reinforce their security cooperation.

Last year, North Korea set an annual record with the launch of more than 70 missiles. North Korea has said many of those weapons tests were a warning over previous U.S.-South Korean military drills. It also passed a law that allows it to use nuclear weapons preemptively in a broad range of scenarios.

Kim Jong Un entered 2023 with a call for an “exponential increase” of the country’s nuclear warheads, mass production of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons targeting South Korea and the development of more advanced ICBMs targeting the U.S.

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