North Korea confirmed Monday it test-launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. territory of Guam, the North's most significant weapon launch in years, as Washington plans steps to show its commitment to its Asian allies.
Sunday's launch could be a prelude to bigger provocations by North Korea such as nuclear and long-range missile tests that pose a direct threat to the U.S. mainland, as the North tries to further pressure the Biden administration to win sanction relief or international recognition as a legitimate nuclear state.
The official Korean Central News Agency said the purpose of the test was verifying the overall accuracy of the Hwasong-12 missile that is being deployed in its military.
KCNA published two sets of combination photos — one showing the missile rising from a launcher and soaring into space and the other showing North Korea and nearby areas that it said were photographed from space by a camera installed at the missile's warhead. The Associated Press decided not to use the images because the authenticity of the photos couldn't be verified.
Lee Choon Geun, a missile expert and honorary research fellow at South Korea's Science and Technology Policy Institute, said he thinks the photos were taken from space — especially when the missile was soaring to its apogee, though he cannot independently prove there was no adjustment on the images. While it's rare to place a camera on a weapon, Lee said North Korea likely wanted to demonstrate its technological advancement to both foreign and domestic audiences.
North Korea said the missile was launched toward waters off its east coast on a high angle to prevent flying over other countries. It gave no further details.
According to South Korean and Japanese assessments, the missile flew about 800 kilometers (497 miles) and reached a maximum altitude of 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) before landing between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.
The reported flight details make it the most powerful missile North Korea has tested since 2017, when the country launched Hwasong-12 and longer-range missiles in a torrid run of weapons firings to acquire an ability to launch nuclear strikes on U.S. military bases in Northeast Asia and the Pacific and even the American homeland.
The Hwasong-12 missile is a nuclear-capable ground-to-ground weapon with a maximum range of 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles) when it's fired on a standard trajectory. It's a distance sufficient to reach Guam, home to U.S. military bases that in past times of tensions sent advanced warplanes to the Korean Peninsula in shows of force. In August 2017, at the height of animosities with the then-Trump administration, North Korea threatened to make "an enveloping fire" near Gaum with Hwasong-12 missiles.
In 2017, North Korea also test-fired intercontinental ballistic missiles called Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 that experts say demonstrated their potential capacity to reach the mainland U.S. Some analysts say North Korea still needs to conduct additional ICBM test-flights to prove it has overcome the last remaining technological hurdles, such as protecting a warhead from the extreme heat and pressure of reentering the Earth's atmosphere.
In recent months, North Korea has launched a variety of weapons systems and threatened to lift a four-year moratorium on more serious weapons tests such as nuclear explosions and ICBM launches. Sunday's launch was the North's seventh round of missile launches in January alone, and other weapons tested recently include a developmental hypersonic missile and a submarine-launched missile.
Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said the Hwasong-12 launch was seen as partially breaking North Korea's weapons test moratorium. In April 2018, when North Korea suspended nuclear and ICBM tests ahead of now-dormant diplomacy with the Trump administration, Kim said North Korea didn't need to test intermediate-range missiles any longer as well.
Cheong said North Korea will likely test-launch its existing long-range missile if the United States spearheads fresh sanctions on it. Other experts said North Korea could conduct a nuclear test as well.
North Korea has publicly vowed to add more powerful ICBMs and nuclear warheads in its arsenal. They include a longer-range ICBM with precision strike capability, a solid-fuel ICBM that improves a weapon's mobility, a multi-warhead missile, a spy satellite and a super-sized warhead.
After Sunday's launch, White House officials said they saw the latest missile test as part of an escalating series of provocations over the last several months that have become increasingly concerning.
The Biden administration plans to respond to the latest missile test in the coming days with an unspecified move meant to demonstrate to the North that the U.S. government is committed to allies' security in the region, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
The official said the administration viewed Sunday's missile test as the latest in a series of provocations to try to win sanctions relief from the U.S. The Biden administration again called on North Korea to return to talks but made clear it doesn't see the sort of leader-to-leader summits Donald Trump held with Kim as constructive at this time.
South Korean and Japanese officials also condemned Sunday's launch, which violated U.N. Security Council resolutions that bans the country from testing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program largely remains stalled.
"Even if Washington had the bandwidth to pay more attention to the North Korean nuclear issue, Pyongyang would likely continue to refuse direct talks because of the pandemic, keep perfecting its weapons technology, and maintain its high price tag for talks," said Duyeon Kim, an analyst at Washington's Center for a New American Security.
Observers say North Korea could suspend weapons tests during the Beijing Winter Olympics because China is its most important ally. But they say North Korea could test bigger weapons when the Olympics end and the U.S. and South Korean militaries begin their springtime military exercises.