North Korea launched its largest missile test since 2017 on Sunday, sending what it said was an intermediate-range ballistic missile soaring into space.
According to KCNA, the North’s press agency, “The evaluation test-fire of Hwasong 12-type ground-to-ground intermediate and long-range ballistic missile was conducted Sunday”.
The test “confirmed the accuracy, security and effectiveness of the operation of the Hwasong 12-type weapon system under production,” it added.
Unusually, the agency also released pictures of the launch, as well as images it said had been taken by the missile from space, appearing to show the Korean peninsula and surrounding areas.
The test was seen as taking the nuclear-armed country one step closer to resuming long-range testing as it revives its old playbook in brinkmanship to wrest concessions from the US and neighbours.
North Korea fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile at about 7:52 am local time, which travelled approximately 800km eastward over the Sea of Japan and reached an altitude of 2,000km, according to South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff. Today’s test was the seventh one this month.
President Moon of South Korea called an emergency national security council meeting where he described the test as a possible “mid-range ballistic missile launch”, which puts Pyongyang on the brink of breaking its 2018 suspension in the testing of nuclear devices and longer-range ballistic missiles.
The president, who will be stepping down in March, condemned the launches as a violation of UN security council resolutions and said they posed a “challenge toward the international society’s efforts to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula, stabilise peace and find a diplomatic solution” to the nuclear standoff.
Nobuo Kishi, the Japanese defence minister, told reporters it was clear that the missile was the longest-range weapon the North had tested since launching its Hwasong-15 ICBM in November 2017, which suggests it could reach Japan as well as the US territory of Guam in Micronesia, in the Western Pacific.
He said the missile appeared to have landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone. There were no immediate reports of damage to boats or aircraft.
The launch came after Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, chaired a ruling party meeting on January 20 where senior party members made a veiled threat to lift the moratorium.
The UN security council imposed strict sanctions on the North in 2017 after Pyongyang conducted several nuclear tests and launched missiles, some of which flew over Japan. Kim warned the country was capable of launching a nuclear strike against the United States.
Moon, who had ambitiously pushed for inter-Korean engagement, held three summits with Kim in 2018 while also lobbying to set up Kim’s first summit with President Trump in 2018, where they issued vague goals for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula without setting out a road map.
But diplomacy became 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.
While Kim announced a moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2018, the leader said in 2019 that he was no longer bound by the hiatus. In December 2021, Kim said conditions in his country demanded “bolstering the state defence capability” without “a moment’s delay.” This was followed by more US sanctions this month.
Sunday’s test comes in addition to six others the North conducted in the month of January alone, including several short-range rockets fired into the sea.