North Korea raises tensions with missile launch into Sea of Japan

North Korea tested what appears to be its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missile on Thursday, in the latest sign that Pyongyang continues to make significant progress in developing its weapons programme.

South Korea said the ICBM reached an altitude of more than 6,000km — the highest a North Korean missile has flown — and travelled for about 71 minutes to a range of 1,080km from its launch site near Pyongyang.

The missile landed in the Sea of Japan within the Japanese exclusive economic zone 170km west of the northern prefecture of Aomori, according to the Japanese coastguard. The sea is known in Korea as the East Sea.

Two people familiar with details of the test said the ICBM travelled to a much higher altitude than previous missiles, suggesting that North Korea had increased the theoretical range of its ballistic missile arsenal.

The US state department condemned the test, which it said followed “at least” two other ICBM tests this year. The US had previously said North Korea tested elements of an ICBM system in February and March.

But the statement on Thursday suggested US intelligence had upgraded its assessments of those tests to full ICBM launches.

“This is the longest-range potential ICBM that North Korea has ever tested,” said Ankit Panda, a nuclear weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It could be due to a reduction in payload weight to test out new fuel storage technologies, or because it’s a new, large missile.”

Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s outgoing president, “strongly condemned” Thursday’s launch, describing North Korea’s long-range missile testing as a “serious threat”.

Hours after the launch, the South Korean military fired multiple missile systems as part of a “joint ground-sea-air missile” exercise.

South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said the exercises demonstrated “capability and preparedness to conduct a precision strike against a missile’s launch point, command and support facilities anytime should North Korea fire a missile”.

Fumio Kishida, Japan’s prime minister, described North Korea’s test as an “unacceptable act of violence”. He said Pyongyang’s repeated launch of ballistic missiles “threatens the peace and security of our country, the region and the international community”.

The ICBM tests in recent months were the first since 2017, when North Korea first tested a long-range ballistic missile with the theoretical range to hit the US mainland. That came amid a period of confrontation with the US during which then-president Donald Trump threatened “fire and fury” on Pyongyang.

Christopher Green, senior consultant for the International Crisis Group, said deteriorating US relations with Russia and China had probably emboldened Pyongyang and that the region was heading into “choppy waters”.

“Although UN resolutions forbid all kinds of ballistic missile tests, the truth is that the only ones that make the US and its allies sit up and take notice are long-range,” Green said.

Thursday’s launch, North Korea’s 12th missile test this year, demonstrates the progress of its missile development programme.

Thursday’s missile test came as Admiral John Aquilino, the top US commander in the Indo-Pacific region, was visiting Australia as part of the US effort to work even more closely with allies to tackle threats from China and North Korea.

“The United States condemns these actions and calls on the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] to refrain from further destabilising acts,” the US Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement.

Analysts said Thursday’s test could mark the start of a new period of confrontation after years of moribund diplomacy following the collapse in 2019 of a summit in Hanoi between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“North Korea wants to re-establish itself as a serious international issue following the failure of its diplomacy in 2018-19,” said Green at the International Crisis Group.

He added that while there had been broad international consensus behind sanctions on Pyongyang after its 2017 ICBM test, collapsing US-Russia relations over Ukraine and Beijing’s intensifying competition with Washington meant North Korea now faced “little risk of punishment for this kind of test”.

Separately on Thursday, the US imposed sanctions on six entities and people in North Korea, Russia and China for helping Pyongyang to continue to develop its missile programme.

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