North Korea Launches Its First Ever ICBM, “Can Reach Alaska”
There was something different – and symbolic – about last night’s North Korean ballistic missile launch which not coincidentally took place on US Independence Day, because shortly after the event, North Korea announced it would have an important announcement to make. This time it did not disappoint, when the country declared that it had successfully tested its first intermediate-range intercontinental ballistic missile which flew for a record time/altitude for the rogue state, and is seen as a “watershed moment” in its push to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the mainland United States.
North Korea, it said, was now “a full-fledged nuclear power that has been possessed of the most powerful inter-continental ballistic rocket capable of hitting any part of the world”. The ICBM would enable the country to “put an end to the US nuclear war threat and blackmail” and defend the Korean peninsula, it added.
In a statement the North’s Academy of Defence Science, which developed the missile, said it reached an altitude of 2,802 kilometres and flew 933 kilometres, calling it the “final gate to rounding off the state nuclear force”.
There are still doubts whether the North can miniaturise a nuclear weapon sufficiently to fit it onto a missile nose cone, or if it has mastered the technology needed for it to survive the difficult re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
As Citi said, “the move is highly provocative and it is difficult to imagine that the date chosen was in any way coincidental (NK did the same in 2006 and 2009)… the enormity of this latest crisis is, as yet, difficult to gauge.”
North Korean state TV released photos of the purported ICBM test launch
Speaking to AFP, US experts said the device could reach Alaska, while the July 4 launch triggered a late evening Twitter outburst from President Trump who urged China to act to “end this nonsense once and for all” and asked on Twitter: “does this guy have anything better to do with his life?”
David Wright, a physicist with the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, told the BBC that if the reports are correct, this missile could “reach a maximum range of roughly 6,700km on a standard trajectory”. That range would allow it to reach Alaska, but not the large islands of Hawaii or the other 48 US states, he says. It is not just a missile that North Korea would need, our correspondent adds. It must also have the ability to protect a warhead as it re-enters the atmosphere, and it is not clear if North Korea can do that.
More importantly, the North’s possession of a working ICBM, something that Trump has vowed “won’t happen”, will likely force a fundamental recalculation of the strategic threat posed by the isolated, impoverished state, and prompted an early selloff in South Korean assets. It will likely require more than just a verbal response from the White House.
The “landmark” test of a Hwasong-14 missile was overseen by leader Kim Jong-Un, an emotional female announcer said on state Korean Central Television. The rocket was “a very powerful ICBM that can strike any place in the world”, the announcer said, and “a major breakthrough in the history of our republic”.
The broadcaster showed his handwritten order to carry out the launch, and pictures of him looking on with binoculars, then grinning in celebration and clenching his fist.
While Pyongyang appears to have made progress, experts believe North Korea does not have the capability to accurately hit a target with an ICBM. Other nuclear powers have also cast doubt on North Korea’s assessment, with Russia saying the missile only reached an altitude of 535km and flew about 510km. Nonetheless, the country has made great progress in its missile capabilities since the ascension to power of Kim, who has overseen three nuclear tests and multiple rocket launches.
The United Nations has imposed multiple sets of sanctions on Pyongyang, which retorts that it needs nuclear arms to defend itself against the threat of invasion.
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US Pacific Command confirmed the test and said it was a land-based, intermediate range missile that flew for 37 minutes before splashing down in the Sea of Japan, adding the launch did not pose a threat to North America, while Moscow’s defence ministry called it medium-range in a statement to Russian news agencies.
But Tokyo – in whose exclusive economic zone it came down – estimated its maximum altitude to have “greatly exceeded” 2,500 kilometres, prompting arms control specialist Jeffrey Lewis to respond on Twitter: “That’s it. It’s an ICBM. An ICBM that can hit Anchorage not San Francisco, but still.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters: “This launch clearly shows that the threat has grown.”
The US, Japan and South Korea will hold a summit on the issue on the sidelines of this week’s G20 meeting, he added. “Also I will encourage President Xi Jinping and President Putin to take more constructive measures.”
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In, who backs both engagement with the North to bring it to the negotiating table and sanctions, and met Trump for a summit in Washington at the weekend, warned the North against crossing a “red line”. “I hope North Korea will not cross the bridge of no return,” he said.
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All eyes are now on whether the US will retaliate: Washington has more than 28,000 troops in South Korea to defend it from its communist neighbour. Fears of conflict reached a peak earlier this year as the Trump administration suggested military action was an option under consideration. There has also been anger in the United States over the death of Otto Warmbier, an American student detained in North Korea for around 18 months before he was returned home in a coma in June.
Trump has been pinning his hopes on China, North Korea’s main diplomatic ally, to bring pressure to bear on Pyongyang, And while recently Trump declared that Beijing’s efforts had failed, but returned to the idea on Twitter following the launch: “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
Meanwhile, Beijing called all parties to “keep calm and exercise restraint” following the latest test. Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China was opposed to North Korea going against clear UN Security Council resolutions on its missile launches, and hit back at Trump, saying it had made “relentless efforts” on North Korea.