Pyongyang baits U.S. with latest ICBM launch

The Yomiuri Shimbun

SEOUL — North Korea’s launch of a new intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland appears to be part of Pyongyang’s push to strengthen its military power.

The latest missile test might also be an attempt to drag the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to the negotiating table, with North Korea hoping to get sanctions lifted. There are concerns that Pyongyang might escalate its provocations, such as by launching an ICBM that flies further than Thursday’s launch.

According to statements by Japan’s Defense Ministry and South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the missile flew for about 70 minutes and reached an altitude of more than 6,000 kilometers — both records for a North Korean missile.

The missile was launched at a steep angle and it landed in the Sea of Japan. This was possibly done so North Korea could gauge the U.S. reaction to the launch.

At a press conference on Friday, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi strongly condemned the launch, saying, “This is a serious threat to the peace and stability of our country and the international community.”

The latest missile was launched on a lofted trajectory, which is more difficult to intercept. Kishi said the missile would be able to fly about 15,000 kilometers if it followed a conventional trajectory, meaning “all of continental United States” would be within its range.

The Hwasong-15 ICBM that North Korea launched in November 2017 has an estimated range of about 10,000 kilometers, which would not reach the U.S. capital.

On Friday, the Korean Central News Agency reported that Pyongyang test-fired new ICBM Hwasong-17 on Thursday.

According to the state news agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday signed an order to conduct the launch, which he attended Thursday. “If the safety of our country is threatened, a price must be paid … We will thoroughly prepare for a long-time confrontation against the imperialism of the United States,” Kim reportedly said.

The news agency also quoted him as saying, “The determination of the party and the government to strengthen deterrence with nuclear capabilities is unshakable. We will place top priority on putting all our energy into reinforcing our defense capability.”

North Korea insists that the missiles it launched on Feb. 27 and March 5 were for the “development of reconnaissance satellites.” Japan, the United States and South Korea believe the launches tested a new ICBM system.

In January 2021, Kim announced a satellite development program. When the North Korean leader inspected the country’s National Aerospace Development Administration this month, he issued instructions to deploy “many” reconnaissance satellites by 2025. Kim also visited a missile testing site in Tongchang-ri in the northwest of the country and ordered the facility be expanded to accommodate the launch of a “large rocket” carrying a satellite. All these steps appear to have hinted at an ICBM launch.

In April, Kim will mark 10 years since he assumed the leadership. April 15 would have been the 110th birthday of Kim’s late grandfather, Kim Il Sung. There are speculations that North Korea might conduct another missile launch by next month to enhance the nation’s prestige.

In 2018, North Korea announced before a summit between Kim and then U.S. President Donald Trump that it was suspending ICBM and nuclear tests. In January 2022, Kim announced that Pyongyang would consider restarting such activities.

During a meeting of the National Security Council on Thursday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in criticized Pyongyang’s actions.

“[Kim] has apparently abandoned the moratorium that he promised to the international community himself,” Moon said. “It is a clear violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution.”

As a retaliatory measure, the South Korean military launched five missiles, including a Hyunmoo-2 surface-to-surface missile, that landed in the Sea of Japan on Thursday evening.

South Korean academic Park Won Gon believes Pyongyang’s aim is to make the United States and other major countries accept the fact that North Korea is effectively a nuclear power and to get economic sanctions lifted.

By developing its missile technology when the Biden administration is busy dealing with the conflict in Ukraine, North Korea also appears to be seeking concessions from the United States. Some South Korean experts have speculated that Pyongyang might escalate provocations if Washington does not show signs of concession.