North Korea tests banned intercontinental missile

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People watch a television screen showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul on March 16, 2022Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
On 16 March North Korea fired a missile, which the US said was a test for parts of an ICBM system

North Korea has tested a banned intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time since 2017, South Korea and Japan say.

Japanese officials said it flew 1,100 km (684 miles) and fell in Japanese waters after flying for over an hour.

ICBMs, designed for nuclear arms delivery, could extend North Korea's strike range as far as the US mainland.

The test is being seen as a major escalation by the North and has been condemned by its neighbours and the US.

North Korea has launched a flurry of missile tests in recent weeks.

The US and South Korea have said some of those tests, which Pyongyang claimed were satellite launches, were in fact trials of parts of an ICBM system.

Thursday's missile appeared to be newer and more powerful than the one North Korea fired five years ago, reaching an altitude of more than 6,000km (3,730 miles), according to Japanese officials.

Media caption,

Why does North Korea keep launching missiles?

South Korea's military responded with five missile tests of its own, from land, sea and air. The United States condemned the North for a "brazen violation" of UN Security Council resolutions.

"The door has not closed on diplomacy, but Pyongyang must immediately cease its destabilising actions," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in condemned what he said was a "breach of the suspension of intercontinental ballistic missile launches promised by Chairman Kim Jong-un to the international community".

A sign of the North's expanding nuclear reach?

Professor Leif-Eric Easley, Ewha University in Seoul

The Kim regime is determined not only to keep South Korea hostage to military threats that can evade Seoul's missile defences and pre-emptive strike capabilities, but also aims to expand its nuclear reach over the American homeland to deter Washington from coming to the defence of US allies.

North Korea is nowhere near initiating aggression on the scale of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But Pyongyang's ambitions likewise exceed self-defence as it wants to overturn the post-war security order in Asia.

The effectiveness of existing sanctions is waning due to lax enforcement by some countries.

Given China and Russia's lack of co-operation on the UN Security Council, the US and its allies will likely need to sanction more entities in those countries and elsewhere that are aiding North Korea's weapons programmes.

The incoming Yoon administration in South Korea can be expected to increase defence exercises with the United States and security co-operation with Japan.

The United States and South Korea had warned in recent weeks that North Korea may be preparing to test-fire an ICBM at full range for the first time since 2017.

On 16 March, North Korea launched a suspected missile that appeared to explode shortly after lift-off over Pyongyang, South Korea's military said.

The UN prohibits North Korea from ballistic and nuclear weapons tests, and has imposed strict sanctions after previous tests.

In 2017 North Korea carried out a number of ICBM tests, the last of which involved a Hwasong-15 missile that reached an altitude of 4,500km (2,800 miles).

Experts estimated the Hwasong-15 could have travelled more than 13,000km (8,080 miles) if it had been fired on a standard trajectory, which meant it could reach any part of the continental United States.

The latest launch is thought to be the North's largest ever ICBM test, and involved an even more powerful missile, possibly the new Hwasong-17 unveiled in 2020 but untested up to now.

In 2018 Kim Jong-un put in place a moratorium on long-range ballistic missile and nuclear tests, following talks with then US President Donald Trump.

But in 2020, Mr Kim announced he was no longer bound by this promise.

Thursday's launch also comes as satellite images showed North Korea firing up activity at its nuclear testing facility in Punggye-ri earlier this month, stoking fears that the North would resume testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

The facility, located in the north-east of the country, had been blown up in 2018 after Mr Kim promised to halt all nuclear tests.