North Korea test fired its most advanced intercontinental ballistic yet on Wednesday, putting the US mainland within range and increasing pressure on US President Donald Trump to deal with the nuclear-armed nation.
Trump, who has vowed to halt North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping and urged Beijing to rein in its ally North Korea.
North Korea said the new missile soared to an altitude of about 4,475 km (2,780 miles) – more than 10 times the height of the International Space Station – and flew 950 km (590 miles) during its 53-minute flight.
It flew higher and longer than any North Korean missile before, landing in the sea near Japan. Experts said the new “Hwasong-15” missile theoretically gave North Korea the ability to hit the US mainland, including the East Coast, although it was not clear whether it could carry a nuclear weapon.
North Korea, which conducted its largest nuclear bomb test in September, has tested dozens of ballistic missiles under its leader, Kim Jong Un, in defiance of international sanctions.
“After watching the successful launch of the new type ICBM Hwasong-15, Kim Jong Un declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power,” according to a statement read by a North Korean television presenter.
Previous US administrations have failed to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and a sophisticated missile program. Trump has also struggled to contain Pyongyang since he came to office in January.
Trump on Wednesday again urged China to use its leverage on Pyongyang and promised more sanctions against North Korea, two strategies that have borne little fruit so far.
“Just spoke to President Xi Jinping of China concerning the provocative actions of North Korea. Additional major sanctions will be imposed on North Korea today. This situation will be handled!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
In a speech in Missouri about taxes, Trump, who has traded insults with the North in the past, referred to Kim with a derisive nickname. “Little Rocket Man. He is a sick puppy,” Trump said.
China, the North’s sole major ally, has so far refrained from taking some of the most drastic steps against North Korea, such as imposing an oil embargo.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said US sanctions would come very soon and would add “maximum pressure on North Korea.”
The latest missile was fired a week after Trump put North Korea back on a US list of countries it says support terrorism, allowing it to impose more sanctions.
North Korean state media said the missile was launched from a newly developed vehicle and that the warhead could withstand the pressure of re-entering the atmosphere, which if confirmed would be an important technical advance.
Kim personally guided the test and said the new launcher was “impeccable”, state media said. He described the new vehicle as a “breakthrough”.
North Korea also described itself as a “responsible nuclear power”, saying its strategic weapons were developed to defend itself from “the US imperialists’ nuclear blackmail policy and nuclear threat”.
The UN Security Council was scheduled to meet on Wednesday to discuss the launch.
When the UN Security Council ratcheted up sanctions in September on North Korea in the wake of its sixth nuclear test, it called on states to inspect vessels on the high seas, with the consent of the flag state, if they have reasonable grounds to believe the ships are carrying prohibited cargo.
However, the initial US draft resolution, which was watered down to win the support of Russia and China, would have allowed a Security Council committee to designate cargo ships for non-consensual inspections and authorized states to use all necessary measures to interdict these ships on the high seas.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday he was counting on UN Security Council members China and Russia to step up sanctions on North Korea.
“I am counting a lot in particular on China and Russia in order to take the most difficult and effective sanctions,” Macron told France 24 television.
Many nuclear experts say the North has yet to prove it has mastered all technical hurdles, including the ability to deliver a heavy nuclear warhead reliably atop an ICBM, but it was likely that it soon would.
“We don’t have to like it, but we’re going to have to learn to live with North Korea’s ability to target the United States with nuclear weapons,” said Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies.
US, Japanese and South Korean officials all agreed the missile, which landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, was likely an ICBM.
“It went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken, a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten everywhere in the world, basically,” US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the White House.
Trump, who was briefed on the missile while it was in flight, said it did not change his administration’s approach to North Korea, which has included new curbs to hurt trade between China and North Korea.
Washington has said repeatedly that all options, including military ones, are on the table in dealing with North Korea while stressing its desire for a peaceful solution.
An international meeting in Canada in January is designed to produce “better ideas” to ease tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests, Canadian officials said on Wednesday, although North Korea itself will not be invited.
Tillerson said on Wednesday the United States has “a long list of additional potential sanctions, some of which involve potential financial institutions, and the Treasury Department will be announcing those when they’re ready to roll those out.”
US East Coast in Range?
The new Hwasong-15, named after the planet Mars, was a more advanced version of an ICBM tested twice in July, North Korea said. It was designed to carry a “super-large heavy warhead”.
Based on its trajectory and distance, the missile would have a range of more than 13,000 km (8,100 miles) – more than enough to reach Washington D.C. and the rest of the United States, the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists said.
However, it was unclear how heavy a payload the missile was carrying, and it was uncertain if it could carry a large nuclear warhead that far, the nonprofit science advocacy group added.
The test comes less than three months before South Korea hosts the Winter Olympics at a resort just 80 km (50 miles) from the heavily fortified border with the North.
North Korea has said its weapons programmes are a necessary defence against US plans to invade. The United States, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, denies any such intention. (Reuters)