North Korea on Thursday conducted its first intercontinental ballistic missile launch in a month, possibly testing a new type of more mobile, harder-to-detect weapons system, its neighbors said, in an extension of the North’s provocative run of missile tests.
The launch prompted Japan to issue an evacuation order on a northern island, and though it was later retracted, it shows the vigilance of North Korea’s neighbors over its evolving missile threats.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staffs said the missile launched on a high angle from near the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and fell in the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan following a 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) flight.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff described the missile as having a medium or longer range. The United States National Security Council called it a long-range missile and Japan’s defense minister an ICBM-class weapon.
South Korea’s military believes North Korea launched a new type of ballistic missile, possibly using solid fuel, a defense official said under anonymity because of office rules.
If the launch involved a solid-fuel ICBM, it would be the North’s first test of such a weapon. North Korea’s known ICBMs all use liquid propellant systems that require them to be fueled before launches. But the fuel in a solid propellant weapon is already loaded inside, allowing them to be moved more easily and fired more quickly.
A solid-propellant ICBM is one of the key high-tech weapons that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to build to better cope with what he calls U.S. military threats. Other weapons he wants to acquire are a multiwarhead missile, a nuclear-powered submarine, a hypersonic missile and a spy satellite.
Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the launch may have involved a new intermediate- or long-range missile powered by solid propellants, or be linked to North Korean preparation to launch a spy satellite.
U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the latest launch “needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilizing the security situation in the region.” Watson said the United States will take all necessary measures to ensure the security of the American homeland and South Korean and Japanese allies.
During an emergency National Security Council meeting in Seoul, officials condemned the launch and stressed the need to tighten three-way security cooperation with Washington and Tokyo. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held a Japanese NSC meeting to analyze the missile as well as Japan’s response to it.
The top nuclear envoys of Seoul, Washington and Tokyo held a telephone conversation where they called for a “decisive and united international response” to North Korean provocations and stronger efforts to stem illicit North Korean activities that allegedly fund its weapons program.
North Korea commonly test-launches missiles toward the international waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. All its past ICBM launches were made in the area, but on elevated trajectories to avoid neighboring countries. South Korea and Japan typically don’t issue evacuation orders for North Korean launches unless they determine weapons fly in the direction of their territories.
Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada told reporters the North Korean missile launched Thursday did not reach Japan’s exclusive economic zone. But Japanese authorities still urged people on the northernmost island of Hokkaido to seek shelter and temporarily suspended train, bus and subway services there. Local communities also activated alert sirens through community speakers, urging people to evacuate.
The government then corrected and retracted its missile alert, saying its analysis showed there was no possibility of a missile landing near Hokkaido.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters that the government issued the alert based on an early missile path assessment by Japan’s Defense Ministry. Matsuno said the missile later disappeared from radar but authorities still issued an alert to prioritize the people’s safety. He said the government’s step was “appropriate.”
The alert suggested Japan was being cautious about North Korea’s evolving missile threats. Asked about the accuracy of Japan’s information dissemination in future North Korean launches, Kishida, the prime minister, said the government is checking related information including alerts.
Japanese authorities issued a similar evacuation order in October when a North Korean intermediate-range missile flew over Japan in a launch that demonstrated the potential to reach the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.
Thursday’s launch was the North’s first long-range missile test since the country tested its longest-range, liquid-fueled Hwasong-17 ICBM on March 16. Kim Jong Un reviewed his country’s attack plans Tuesday and vowed to enhance his nuclear arsenal in more “practical and offensive” ways.
North Korea has launched a total of about 100 missiles since the start of 2022, many of them nuclear-capable weapons that place the U.S. mainland, South Korea and Japan within striking distance.
The North’s testing spree is largely in protest of South Korean-U.S. military drills that it views as a rehearsal for an invasion. Some observers say North Korea uses its rivals’ drills as a pretext to modernize its weapons arsenal and pressure Washington and Seoul to make concessions such as the lifting of economic sanctions. South Korean and U.S. officials say their drills are defensive in nature and were arranged to respond to North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threats.
North Korea unveiled a new type of nuclear warhead in late March, raising concerns it could conduct its first nuclear test in more than five years. Foreign experts debate whether North Korea has developed warheads small and light enough to fit on its more advanced missiles.
South Korean officials say North Korea has not been responding to South Korean calls on a set of cross-border inter-Korean hotlines for about a week. Communications on those channels are meant to prevent accidental clashes along the rivals’ disputed western sea boundary.
On Tuesday, South Korean Unification Minister Kwon Youngse, expressed “strong regret” over what he called North Korea’s “unilateral and irresponsible attitude” over the hotlines.
North Korea’s advancing nuclear arsenal is expected to be a major topic during a summit between South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden later this month in Washington.
Experts say the discussions between world leaders at Japan’s Group of Seven meetings in May could be crucial for maintaining diplomatic pressure on North Korea. United Nations Security Council permanent members China and Russia have blocked tighter sanctions on North Korea in recent months, underscoring a divide deepened by Russia’s war on Ukraine.