For the first time in more than two months, North Korea fired a ballistic missile yesterday despite U.N. and U.S. sanctions, and demands from President Trump to halt its nuclear weapons program.
The test launch, which was confirmed by both South Korea and Japan, marks a new phase in the standoff between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Trump. The launch tested a new type of intercontinental missile with improved technology that can deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere in the U.S., according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
The North Korean regime claims its new missile, named the Hwasong-15, is a “super-large heavy warhead” that’s capable of striking anywhere in the U.S. mainland, including California, New York, or Washington D.C.
While analysts have said that it’s difficult to confirm or debunk the North’s claims given current evidence, according to South Korea’s military, Kim’s new missile test flew 10 times higher than the International Space Station, and twice as high as any low-earth orbit satellite. Western officials agree that the launch appeared to be an intercontinental ballistic missile that demonstrated the North now has the capability to fly a missile further than previously demonstrated.
“It went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken,” said Defense Secretary James Mattis to reporters at the White House.
The test was fired on what is called a “lofted” trajectory, or at a steep angle, where it travelled very high but landed relatively close to its launch site, crashing down in the Sea of Japan roughly 600 miles from where it was fired.
Some experts believe that if the rocket was aimed at a lower angle, as it would in an attack scenario, its range would stretch around 8,100 miles, putting as far as the East Coast of the U.S. in range.
“If we extrapolate this test we think it would give North Korea the capability to reach Washington D.C.” said John Nilsson-Wright, a senior research fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank.
But don’t be too alarmed yet. Having a long-range rocket capable of hitting the U.S. is just one piece of a more complex puzzle. Kim’s regime would also have to develop a reentry vehicle strong enough to protect a warhead from the heat produced by traveling the Earth’s atmosphere at speed. North Korea would also need to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and make it light enough to fit on the missile without reducing its range.
The country has not yet demonstrated it has either of these capabilities. “We still don’t know the ability of North Korea to put a warhead on a long-range missile and fire it with accuracy,” said Nilsson-Wright.
Michael Elleman, a ballistic missile analyst at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, thinks the North is a year out from having such capabilities. “A viable ICBM capable of reaching the West Coast of the U.S. mainland is still a year away, though North Korea continues to progress.”