The missile that North Korea fired Friday flew higher than any previous test, suggesting that the regime in Pyongyang is developing a capability to strike the United States, perhaps even to hit targets in the US Midwest, according to experts and US defense officials.
The missile also landed closer to Japan than previous tests had, the Pentagon said, falling just 88 nautical miles from the top US ally in Asia. The previous North Korean test missile, on July 4, landed about 200 nautical miles from Japan.
Pentagon officials said North Korea launched the missile from its northern Mupyong-ni launch site at 10:41 a.m. ET. Like the July 4 test, the missile went essentially straight up in the air before landing in the Sea of Japan near Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island, according to Japanese officials.
But experts said the test was no simple repeat of the July 4 firing. While the missile fired Friday did not travel along the ground substantially further than the July 4 test, it soared 3,700 kilometers (nearly 2,300 miles) in altitude, according to the South Korean military, far higher than the 2,800 kilometers (1,736 miles) reached in the July 4 test, according to estimates provided by the US, Japan and South Korea.
The missile also spent several minutes longer in the air, as long as 45 minutes, according to Japanese government officials, compared to 39 minutes on July 4.
That translates into a greater threat to the US, Melissa Hanham, senior research associate for the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told BuzzFeed News. Once those distances are translated laterally, they reach well into the US mainland.
On Friday, Hanham tweeted a map to show the missile’s possible reach, given the results of Friday’s test. One estimate shown on the map placed Chicago and Kansas City within range; the other estimate included nearly the entire US Lower 48, except southern Georgia and Florida. In an email, Hanham said the second estimate was the more likely range of the missile.
By comparison, after the July 4 test, US officials estimated a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile could reach Hawaii and the edge of Alaska.
Friday’s test provoked a heightened response from US military chiefs. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Navy Adm. Harry Harris, commander of US Pacific Command, called Gen. Lee Sun-jin, the Republic of Korea Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, according to a Pentagon statement, in part to consider possible military options.
“During the call Dunford and Harris expressed the ironclad commitment to the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance,” the Pentagon statement read. “The three leaders also discussed military response options.”
On Saturday, local time, South Korea and the US conducted a round of ballistic missile drills in a show of firepower against North Korea, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported. The exercise was intended to show the allies' capabilities for "precise strike on the enemy's leadership," according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, the agency reported.
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan both reportedly called emergency meetings after the launch.
President Trump issued a statement Friday evening calling the test the "latest reckless and dangerous action by the North Korean regime. The United States condemns this test and rejects the regime’s claim that these tests—and these weapons—ensure North Korea’s security. In reality, they have the opposite effect. By threatening the world, these weapons and tests further isolate North Korea, weaken its economy, and deprive its people."
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also released a statement condemning the launch and calling out Russia and China as "economic enablers" of North Korea. The two countries "bear unique and special responsibility for this growing threat to regional and global stability," he wrote.
North Korea in turn issued a statement claiming that the missile had hit its targeted area and that the US "would not be safe on the day when they dared to touch our country." North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was quoted in state-run KCNA as saying, "Washington's threat of war only prompts us to further awaken and justifies our will to develop nuclear weapons."
Despite the apparent advance in missile capabilities, North Korea has yet to demonstrate that it has the ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon to place on the tip of a missile or has developed the capability that would allow the missile to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere in a controlled manner.
It was unclear if Friday’s ICBM was the regime’s Hwasong-14 missile that was tested July 4. But if it was, Hanham said she believes it indicates that the North Koreans conducted a more aggressive test of the missile’s maximum capacity on Friday than they did on July 4.
“I think they understated the July 4 test because they were nervous about cutting it too close to Japan. I think they now are testing closer to maximum power,” she said.
Hanham said that North Korea conducts such tests as much to send a message to the international community as it does to develop both its human and technical missile skills.
“These are defensive weapons that are meant to say, ‘Hey, US, before you get involved in our neighborhood, remember we have weapons that could put your cities at risk.’ What they are gambling on is that the US has less interest in coming to the aid of allies like South Korea and Japan than North Korea has to stay alive,” Hanham said.
The US military was mum on what its response might be. In May, the US military moved two of its carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan, to the region in a show of force. One week after the July 4 test, the US military successfully shot down a simulated, incoming intermediate-range ballistic missile off the coast of Alaska using a missile defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD.
Nancy Youssef is a national security correspondent with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Nancy A. Youssef at email@example.com.
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