North Korea said Sunday its latest intercontinental ballistic missile test was meant to further strengthen its “fatal” nuclear attack capacity and threatened additional powerful steps over upcoming military drills between the United States and South Korea.
The US responded by flying long-range supersonic bombers in a show of force later Sunday for separate joint exercises with South Korean and Japanese warplanes.
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 arsenal to get the upper hand 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 announced its launch of the 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) for 67 minutes before accurately hitting a pre-set area in the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. The steep-angle launch was apparently to avoid 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 N. Korea has a functioning nuclear-tipped ICBM is still suspicious, as some experts say the North hasn’t mastered a way to protect warheads from the severe conditions of atmospheric reentry. The North says it has 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.