A woman walks past a television screen showing a picture of North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), at a railway station in Seoul on July 4, 2017 (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korea says it has tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, a weapon that could hit U.S. soil and whose existence stands to further roil the volatile region.
On Tuesday at 3 p.m., a jubilant North Korean state television claimed the successful test of its first intercontinental ballistic missile, which it said climbed to 2,802 kilometres in altitude and travelled 933 kilometres in a flight of just under 40 minutes, before falling into the waters between North Korea and Japan.
It’s a missile, western observers estimated, that may be capable of reaching Alaska.
Such a device would constitute a major step forward in military might for North Korea, an achievement that stands to further embolden the isolated nation and produce dangerous new fissures in the already tense region.
North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency called it “the final gateway to completing our nuclear force. It marked a phenomenal event in our history.”
The launch – on July 4 in the North Korean time zone – came as a defiant repudiation of Mr. Trump’s pledge this January that Pyongyang’s development of such a weapon “won’t happen.”
The U.S. military initially called the device an “intermediate range ballistic missile,” and Mr. Trump quickly responded by mocking North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Twitter, writing, “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?”
But North Korea’s claim, hours later, that the missile had intercontinental capability was deemed plausible by western analysts, whose initial estimates suggest a range of 5,700 to 6,700 kilometres. Anchorage lies 6,000 kilometres from Pyongyang (Vancouver is 8,100).
“It means that North Korea has become, or is soon to become, the third country in the world capable of obliterating an American city or two – after Russia and China,” said Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea at Kookmin University in Seoul.
“You can definitely use the word game-changer,” said Shea Cotton, a research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“This is not just a significant technological achievement. North Korea has crossed a pretty big line here. Stopping North Korea from developing an ICBM has been one of the major cornerstones of United States foreign policy when it came to North Korea.”
The missile launch comes little more than a year after Mr. Kim posed with a round grey device that the country’s media called a miniaturized nuclear bomb capable of being fitted onto a missile. Though the device was mocked as a “disco ball,” “that’s probably a viable device,” Mr. Cotton said.
Since that date, a rapid-fire testing program has further allowed the country to prove its mastery of other technological elements of a long-range missile, including re-entry and targeting, that could be used to deliver a nuclear device.
“I think they can do it,” Mr. Cotton said.
Having the truculent and unpredictable Mr. Kim in possession of such a weapon is likely to upend strategic calculations in the region at a time the Trump administration has pressed for harsher economic sanctions against North Korea, Prof. Lankov said.
Pyongyang will “be far more assertive and aggressive in pushing through their interests, and of course any military solution will become even less possible than now,” he said.
Having an ICBM may allow North Korea to sit down at the negotiating table, “but they will not be talking about denuclearization,” Prof. Lankov said.
The best the west can hope for now, he said, is a deal where “the North Koreans will agree to slow down or freeze their nuclear program in exchange for assorted – and very large and very significant – economic and political concessions from the United States.”
Mr. Trump, in a Monday night tweet, said such the missile test should prompt a response from Beijing.
“Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!” he wrote, following a Sunday night call with Chinese president Xi Jinping in which he warned that the U.S. is prepared to act alone on North Korea.
The Trump administration has in recent weeks begun to sanction Chinese companies and banks for doing business with North Korea, an escalation in measures. H.R. McMaster, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, has openly discussed a potential “military option.”
With an ICBM, however, North Korea can elevate the consequences of military conflict, which already included the possible devastation of Seoul and a major conflagration that would draw in numerous Asian powers.
“The real way to take wood out of the stove, in my opinion, is still the Dual Suspensions proposal,” said Lu Chao, a North Korea expert at Liaoning Provincial Institute of Social Science. That proposal, made and promoted by the Chinese government, involves the U.S. halting military exercises in the region in exchange for North Korea halting nuclear and missile tests.
“This is the basic way to solve the peninsula’s nuclear issue,” Mr. Lu said.
Previous North Korean provocations have been met by new and harsher rounds of sanctions, and world leaders will meet this week in Hamburg, Germany for a Group of 20 summit.
But it’s not clear what they can do, given how badly economic measures have, so far, failed to slow North Korea’s military progress.
“There isn’t any good solution to this problem, really,” said Jin Qiangyi, director of the Center for North and South Korea Studies at Yanbian University in Yanji.
Instead, North Korea’s neighbours united in criticism of the Tuesday test.
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said “the missile launch this time has clearly shown that the [North Korean] threat has further increased.” South Korean president Moon Jae-in warned about a “red line” – which he did not define – saying, “I hope North Korea will not cross the point of no return.”
In China, meanwhile, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing “calls for relevant parties to maintain restraint and calm to ease the tensions on the peninsula.”
With reporting by Yu Mei