North Korea on Sunday fired what appeared to be the most powerful missile it has tested since President Joe Biden took office, as it revives its old playbook in brinkmanship to wrest concessions from Washington and neighbors amid a prolonged stalemate in diplomacy.
The Japanese and South Korean militaries said the missile was launched on a high trajectory, apparently to avoid the territorial spaces of neighbors, and reached a maximum altitude of 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) and traveled 800 kilometers (497 miles) before landing in the sea.
The flight details suggest the North tested its longest-range ballistic missile since 2017, when it twice flew intermediate-range ballistic missiles over Japan and, separately, three intercontinental ballistic missiles that demonstrated the potential to reach deep into the American homeland.
Sunday's test was North Korea’s seventh round of launches this month. The unusually fast pace of tests indicates its intent to pressure the Biden administration over long-stalled nuclear negotiations as pandemic-related difficulties put further stress on an economy broken by decades of mismanagement and crippling U.S.-led sanctions
While desperate for outside relief, Kim has showed no willingness to surrender the nuclear weapons and missiles he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival. Analysts say Kim’s pressure campaign is aimed at forcing Washington to accept the North as a nuclear power and convert their nuclear disarmament-for-aid diplomacy into negotiations for mutual arms reduction.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in called an emergency National Security Council meeting where he described the test as a possible "mid-range ballistic missile launch” that brought North Korea to the brink of breaking its 2018 self-imposed moratorium on the testing of nuclear devices and longer-range missiles.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi also told reporters that the missile was the longest-range the North has tested since its Hwasong-15 ICBM in November 2017.
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un chaired a ruling party meeting on Jan. 20, where senior party members made a veiled threat to lift the moratorium, citing what they perceived as U.S. hostility and threats.
The latest launch suggests Kim's moratorium is already broken, said Lee Choon Geun, a missile expert and honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute.
In his strongest comments toward the North in years, Moon said the situation around the Korean Peninsula is beginning to resemble 2017, when North Korea’s provocative run in nuclear and long-range missile testing resulted in an exchange of war threats between Kim and then-President Donald Trump.
Moon said the North’s latest moves violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and were a “challenge toward the international community's efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, stabilize peace and find a diplomatic solution” to the standoff.
The North “should stop its actions that create tensions and pressure and respond to the dialogue offers by the international community including South Korea and the United States,” Moon said, according to his office.
Moon's efforts to reach out to North Korea derailed after the collapse of the second Kim-Trump meeting in 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korea’s demand for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Sunday’s missile flew for around 30 minutes and landed in waters outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone. There were no immediate reports of damage to boats or aircraft.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the United States condemned North Korea’s testing activity and called on Pyongyang to refrain from further destabilizing acts. It said the latest launch did not “pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel, territory, or that of our allies.”
Still, 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 it 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 the latest 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 Trump held with Kim as constructive at this time.
Takehiro Funakoshi, director-general for Asian and Oceanian Affairs at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, discussed the launch in separate phone calls with Sung Kim, Biden’s special envoy for North Korea, and Noh Kyu-duk, South Korea’s nuclear envoy. The officials shared an understanding that Sunday’s missile was of enhanced destructive power and reaffirmed trilateral cooperation in the face of the North Korean threat, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said.
Experts say the North could halt its testing spree after the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics next week out of respect for China, its major ally and economic lifeline. But there’s also expectation that it could significantly up the ante in weapons demonstrations once the Olympics end in February to grab the attention of the Biden administration, which has been focusing more on confronting China and Russia over its conflict with Ukraine.
“North Korea is launching a frenzy of missiles before the start of the Beijing Olympics, mostly as military modernization efforts. Pyongyang also wants to boost national pride as it gears up to celebrate political anniversaries in the context of economic struggles,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“It wants to remind Washington and Seoul that trying to topple it would be too costly. By threatening stability in Asia while global resources are stretched thin elsewhere, Pyongyang is demanding the world compensate it to act like a ‘responsible nuclear power,’” Easley added.
The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said Washington had imposed sanctions against North Korea in the past few weeks and was looking at other options.
“We are open to having diplomatic discussions. We have offered this over and over to the DPRK. And they have not accepted it,” Thomas-Greenfield said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“Our goal is to end the threatening actions that the DPRK is taking against their neighbors,” she said, referring to North Korea's formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
North Korea has justified its testing activity as an exercise of its right to self-defense. It has threatened stronger action after the Biden administration imposed fresh sanctions following two tests of a purported hypersonic missile earlier this month.
Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.