North Korea test-fires most powerful missile since 2017

Analysts say seventh launch this month – detected by Japan and South Korea – was probably an intermediate-range ballistic missile.

People watch a television screen showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test.
People watch a television screen showing a broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, in Seoul [File: Jung Yeon-je/AFP]

North Korea conducted what could be its longest-range missile test since 2017 on Sunday, analysts said, after Japan and South Korea reported a suspected ballistic missile had been launched into the sea from the country’s east coast.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that a projectile believed to be a single ballistic missile was launched at about 7:52am (22:52 GMT) from North Korea’s Jagang Province towards the sea.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a televised briefing that the projectile is estimated to have reached an altitude of 2,000km (1,243 miles) and flown for 30 minutes to a distance of 800km (497 miles). South Korea reported the same altitude and distance.

Analysts said the data suggested it was an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), possibly the Hwasong-12, which was last tested in 2017.

“That’s a bigger missile [longer-range] than anything since November 2017,” Ankit Panda from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote on Twitter. “Likely IRBM.” 

Leader Kim Jong Un has said he wants to boost the country’s military and modernise its weaponry, with a hypersonic missile among seven launches that have taken place since the start of the year in a flurry of testing unseen since 2017.

North Korea on Friday confirmed it had tested two long-range cruise missiles, and said earlier this month it considered resuming “all temporarily suspended activities”, hinting that it might lift a self-imposed moratorium on testing nuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

A combination photo of four separate images of rockets blasting off in a flurry of flames and flying through the air following one of the missile tests that North Korea conducted last week
A combination image shows a missile test that state media KCNA says was conducted last week at undisclosed locations in North Korea [KCNA via Reuters]

In Seoul, President Moon Jae-in called a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) for the first time in about a year, and urged North Korea to stop the launches. Yonhap news agency said the meeting would be closely watched to see how the NSC chooses to criticise the launch, including whether it will characterise the test as a “provocation”.

A US State Department spokesperson said the launch demonstrates the threat posed by North Korea’s unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes, and called on Pyongyang to engage in “sustained and substantive” dialogue.

Nuclear-armed North Korea is banned from testing ballistic missiles under United Nations sanctions, which have also squeezed its economy.

Talks on denuclearisation have been stalled since the collapse of the summit between Kim and then United States President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019 on Kim’s demand for sanctions relief.

Earlier in January, Pyongyang opened its border with China, a crucial trading partner, for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic amid reports of rising food prices and hunger.

“The international message behind North Korea’s month of missile tests is about price,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “The Kim regime hears external discussions of its domestic weaknesses and sees South Korea’s growing strength. So it wants to remind Washington and Seoul that trying to topple it would be too costly. By threatening stability in Asia while global resources are stretched thin elsewhere, Pyongyang is demanding the world compensate it to act like a ‘responsible nuclear power.’”

The latest test comes less than a week before the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing and as Pyongyang gears up to mark what would have been the 80th birthday of Kim Jong Il in the middle of February.

North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon since 2017.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies