North Korea's launch of its most powerful missile took some by surprise, but the successful test of the Hwasong-15 is all part of the country's strategic plan.

Pyongyang on Wednesday fired the new model intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) which it claimed was capable of hitting the eastern seaboard of the United States.

Kim Jong-un's launch was the 20th such test this year and follows a 74-day pause in missile testing, reports News.com.au.

Propaganda pictures released by the secretive state reveal that the missile is bigger and more powerful than previous models.

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In an interview with news.com.au on Friday, US Center for Nonproliferation Studies research associate Michael Duitsman said the new missile was significantly bigger than its predecessor, the Hwasong-14.

Wednesday's missile flew for 53 minutes across 960km and reached a height of about 4500km. If shot at a normal trajectory, experts say it could reach as far as 13,000km, putting the US within range.

North Korea's state media claimed the new missile could carry a "superheavy nuclear warhead" and that its range meant it could hit the US.

However some experts have expressed doubts whether the missile could travel further than the west coast of the US when it carries the weight of a real warhead.

Michael Elleman, from respected monitoring website 38 North, argues that it is "unlikely" North Korea has the experience to build a light enough warhead to travel those distances.

Regardless, many experts agree North Korea's final goal is in sight with Pyongyang aiming to become both a nuclear and missile power.

North Korea claimed it has developed a hydrogen bomb which can be loaded into the country's new intercontinental ballistic missiles. Photo / AP
North Korea claimed it has developed a hydrogen bomb which can be loaded into the country's new intercontinental ballistic missiles. Photo / AP

North Korea has also been busy building its nuclear arsenal and on September 3 claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb which can be loaded into the country's new ICBMs.

Questions remain over whether nuclear-armed Pyongyang has successfully miniaturised its weapons, and whether it has a working H-bomb.

'Aim achieved'

According to Seoul-based media site NK News, Pyongyang has now achieved its aim to reach the Holy Grail of its nuclear and missile program.

Andrei Lankov writes: "Pyongyang decision-makers see the ability to hit the United States as their best, and perhaps only, guarantee of long-term political survival. They are not going to stop testing until they reach that goal."

Lankov also writes that the North will continue advancing its missile and nuclear program, which is now in its final stages.

"As long as the United States doesn't use military force (at the cost of risking a major war), nothing can stop North Korean leaders from becoming the third country in the world, after Russia and China, capable of annihilating any American city," he writes.

He also provides a logical reason as to why North Korea will keep on testing.

"North Korea's decision-makers believe that they have just a few more steps before they arrive at their strategic goal," he writes. "Once there, they can begin negotiating and seriously reduce international pressure."

North Korean soldiers salute at Munsu Hill in Pyongyang, North Korea to mark the 69th anniversary of the country's founding. Photo / AP
North Korean soldiers salute at Munsu Hill in Pyongyang, North Korea to mark the 69th anniversary of the country's founding. Photo / AP

'Keep on testing'

Nuclear disarmament campaigner John Hallam said even if the timing of Wednesday's test took us by surprise it was clear the Democratic People's Republic (DPRK) won't stop now.

"The DPRK definitely sees as most likely that it hits the button first, in a situation in which it is already convinced that the US is about to do a pre-emptive strike against it," he said.
"This is because it must have concerns over the survivability of what is still the world's smallest nuclear arsenal.

"If it takes that first strike option, it must, to have even a slight chance of survival, try to take US command and control out of action. Its most logical targets are therefore US command and control nodes."

Mr Hallam also said sanctions had the opposite effect on North Korea and this was not going to stop them testing.

"We can go forward on the DPRK only if we firmly grasp that threats and sanctions not only will not work but are themselves a powerful driving force behind the DPRK's testing," he said.

"The more we threaten them if they test the more they will be determined to test."

Form of insurance

Earlier this year, the Lowy Institute's international security program director Dr Euan Graham pointed out Kim's missile program was a form of insurance — and there was no way he would stop until he achieved his ultimate aim.

"There's a survival element to this because Kim doesn't want to end up like Saddam or Gaddafi," Dr Graham said.

"Kim thinks if he's got this nuclear arsenal he won't end up six feet under."

Australian National University researcher and North Korean expert Leonid Petrov told news.com.au recently the one thing Kim really wants is international recognition as an atomic power.

"Like Iran and Pakistan, Pyongyang wants to be treated just as equally as they are," he said.