North Korea claimed to have tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile in a launch Tuesday, a potential game-changing development in its push to militarily challenge Washington - but a declaration that conflicts with earlier South Korean and US assessments that it had an intermediate range.
The North has previously conducted satellite launches that critics say were disguised tests of its long-range missile technology. But a test-launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, if confirmed, would be a major step forward in developing a nuclear-armed missile that can reach anywhere in the United States.
Still, the launch appeared to be the North's most successful missile test yet, a weapon analyst said could be powerful enough to reach Alaska.
The launch seems designed to send a political warning to Washington and its chief Asian allies, Seoul and Tokyo, even as it allows North Korean scientists a chance to perfect their still-incomplete nuclear missile program. It came on the eve of the US Independence Day holiday, days after the first face-to-face meeting of the leaders of South Korea and the United States, and ahead of a global summit of the world's richest economies.
US, South Korean and Japanese officials say the missile fired from North Phyongan province, in the North's western region, flew for about 40 minutes and reached an altitude of 2500 kilometres, which would be longer and higher than any other similar tests previously reported. It also covered a distance of about 930 kilometres. South Korean analysts said it was likely that it was a retest of one of two intermediate-range missiles launched earlier this year.
Once US missile scientist, David Wright, estimated that the missile, if the reported time and distance are correct, would have been on a very highly lofted trajectory and could have a possible maximum range of 6700 kilometres, which could put Alaska in its range, if fired at a normal trajectory.
North Korea has a reliable arsenal of shorter-range missiles, but is still trying to perfect its longer-range missiles. Some analysts believe North Korea has the technology to arm its short-range missiles with nuclear warheads, but it's unclear if it has mastered the technology needed to build an atomic bomb that can fit on a long-range missile.Soon after the morning launch, President Donald Trump responded on Twitter: "North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!"
"This guy" presumably refers to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. China is North Korea's economic lifeline and only major ally, and the Trump administration is pushing Beijing to do more to push the North toward disarmament.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga suggested the altitude of this missile might have been higher than earlier tests. He did not give further details, including the distance of the flight and where in Japan's exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan the missile landed.
Just last week South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump met for the first time and vowed to oppose North Korea's development of atomic weapons.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sharply criticised North Korea for the launch. "The latest launch clearly showed that the threat is growing," Abe said.
Abe, who talked by phone with Trump on Monday, said the two leaders plan to seek cooperation from world leaders when they attend a G20 summit in Germany.
Lee Illwoo, a Seoul-based military commentator, said the missile travelled for a far longer period of time than if it would have been fired at a normal angle. A North Korean scud-type missile, with a range of 800-900 kilometres, would land in its target site within 10 minutes if fired at a standard angle of 45 degrees. Lee said it's likely that North Korea fired either Hwasong-12 missile or a solid-fuel Pukguksong-2, both of which were tested in May.
On May 14, North Korea launched the Hwasong-12 missile, which its state media later said flew as high as 2,111 kilometres and landed in a targeted area in the ocean about 787 kilometres from the launch site. On May 21, North Korea also tested the Pukguksong-2, which travelled about 500 kilometres.
China's UN ambassador, Liu Jieyi, warned Monday that further escalation of already high tensions with North Korea risks getting out of control, "and the consequences would be disastrous."
The Korean Peninsula has been divided since before the 1950-53 Korean War. Almost 30,000 US troops are stationed in South Korea.
Tuesday's launch is the first by the North since a June 8 test of a new type of cruise missile that Pyongyang says is capable of striking US and South Korean warships "at will."
Since taking office on May 10, Moon has tried to improve strained ties with North Korea, but the North has continued its missile tests. Pyongyang says it needs nuclear weapons and powerful missiles to cope with what it calls rising US military threats.