North Korean leader Kim Jong Un claimed a missile launch on Wednesday showed he can strike the entire U.S. with a nuclear weapon, signaling a new phase in his standoff with President Donald Trump.
North Korea “successfully” launched a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile with improved technology that can deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere in the U.S., the state-run Korean Central News Agency said. Kim watched the test and “declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force,” KCNA said.
Kim’s claims on his nuclear capabilities, yet to be verified independently, suggest he is seeking to push the U.S. into talks from a position of strength. Trump has threatened to use military force to stop North Korea’s nuclear program, which Kim says he needs to deter an American invasion, and the U.S has long said the regime must dismantle its weapons in order for negotiations to occur.
Trump struck a more measured tone after the launch compared with previous threats to unleash “fire and fury,” telling reporters “we will take care of that situation.” The United Nations Security Council, which has imposed sanctions on North Korea this year, plans to meet later Wednesday in New York.
“North Korea is saying the U.S. should acknowledge it as a nuclear state and shift its policy to dialogue,” said Koh Yu-hwan, who teaches North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “Pyongyang’s following the Chinese model: obtain nuclear weapons and suggest co-existence to the U.S.”
No major power has said it will recognize North Korea as a nuclear state. China and Russia, two countries that Trump has singled out for supporting North Korea, have said they prefer dialogue to rein Kim in.
China opposed Wednesday’s test and will continue to strictly uphold UN sanctions, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular briefing. He reiterated support for a proposal made with Russia, under which North Korea refrains from missile and nuclear tests, while the U.S. and South Korea halt large-scale military exercises.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament Wednesday it would be a mistake to recognize North Korea as a nuclear power.
Experts differ on when North Korea will pose a credible threat to the U.S., with estimates ranging from months to years. While the regime has made steady progress, the U.S. and South Korea assess that its ballistic missiles still can’t survive the stress involved with re-entering the atmosphere or target specific locations. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Wednesday that Japan was analyzing whether North Korea had that capability.
Japan said the ICBM flew for 53 minutes on a lofted trajectory and may have reached an altitude of more than 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) before landing about 250 kilometers off its northwest coast. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said it flew higher than prior North Korean launches.
KCNA said the missile it fired showed accuracy in its target, speed correction mid-flight and the operation of a high-thrust engine.
“The test-fire also re-confirmed the control and stabilization technology, phase-separation and start-up technology and the safety of warhead in the atmospheric reentry environment that had already been confirmed,” it said.
South Korea’s military staged its own missile exercise within minutes of the launch, which Mattis said “made certain that North Korea understands they could be taken under fire by our ally.” Trump spoke by phone separately with Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Moon called for dialogue, warning that matters could become “uncontrollable” if North Korea obtains a fully functional ICBM. “We should prevent a situation where North Korea threatens us with its nuclear arsenal based on misjudgment, or the U.S. considers a preemptive strike,” he said.
North Korea has threatened in recent months to take even more provocative actions, such as testing a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean or firing missiles over Japan near the U.S. territory of Guam. Launches of missiles from submarines or an ICBM on a flatter trajectory would show technical improvements.
Experts said the altitude and distance of Wednesday’s missile would give it more than enough range to reach any part of the continental U.S. if flown on a standard trajectory.
Kim said the launch was conducted at a high launch angle to avoid risk to the security of other nations. He claimed the missile could carry a “super-large heavy warhead which is capable of striking the whole mainland of the U.S.” — something experts questioned.
“We do not know how heavy a payload this missile carried, but given the increase in range it seems likely that it carried a very light mock warhead,” David Wright, the co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Global Security Program, wrote on his blog. “If true, that means it would be incapable of carrying a nuclear warhead to this long distance, since such a warhead would be much heavier.”
The Trump administration has recently sent mixed signals to North Korea. On a trip to Asia this month, Trump called on North Korea to “come to the table” to make a deal to end its nuclear program, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he could envision talks with Kim’s regime as a precursor to formal negotiations.
Then on Nov. 20, Trump labeled North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism. North Korea called that a reminder it should keep hold of its “precious nuclear sword.”
Tillerson said after Wednesday’s missile launch that “diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now.”
— With assistance by Takashi Hirokawa, and Peter Martin