N Korea fires long-range ballistic missile

The missile had the capability of reaching the United States, a Japanese official said.
By Lee Jeong-Ho and Alex Willemyns for RFA
2023.12.17
Seoul/Washington
N Korea fires long-range ballistic missile People watch a television screen showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul on Dec. 18, 2023.
Anthony Wallace/AFP

UPDATED at 2:45 a.m. on 2023-12-19

North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that a Japanese official said on Monday had a range that could reach the United States.

The long-range ballistic missile, or ICBM, was fired from near Pyongyang at 8:24 a.m., South Korea’s Joint Chief of Staff said in a statement Monday. The JCS added they were currently analyzing data with the U.S. authorities to determine what type of ICBM it was.

In a later statement, the JCS said the missile was launched at a high angle, traveling around 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) before landing off its eastern coast.

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the United States condemned the latest launch and appealed to the international community to heap pressure on Pyongyang to end its ballistic missile program. 

“These launches are in violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions, they pose a threat to the DPRK’s neighbors and undermine regional security,” Miller said at a press briefing on Monday.

“We urge all countries to condemn these violations and to fully implement relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions, which are in place to impede the DPRK’s unlawful WMD and ballistic missile programs,” he said.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that he spoke with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts following the launch and “reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering commitment to the defense of Japan and the ROK,” using an acronym for the South’s formal name.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters that he had instructed officials to carry out safety checks throughout Japan in the wake of the launch, but said that “so far, no damage has been reported.”

Japan's Parliamentary Vice Minister of Defence Shingo Miyake said that the missile launched by North Korea had the capacity to reach the United States, “based on calculations of its flight trajectory.”

“The ICBM-class ballistic missile launched this time has a range of more than 15,000 km, depending on the weight of the warhead, and in that case, it can reach anywhere in the United States,” Miyake said.

Meanwhile, South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo last month suspended parts of a 2018 agreement with the North intended to reduce military tensions. At that time, he said South Korea would resume surveillance flights along the shared border, which was banned under the deal.

Fair warnings

The launch came just two days after South Korea’s first deputy director of the National Security Office, Kim Tae-hyo, indicated in Washington that North Korea was likely to test launch an ICBM capable of delivering multiple nuclear warheads to the United States mainland within this month.

Separately, Seoul and Washington held the U.S.-South Korea Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) last week and agreed to conduct nuclear operation exercises in August next year, in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.

North Korea has long considered the allies’ joint military drills involving U.S. strategic assets as a direct threat to its regime security, often labeling it as an “invasion practice.” South Korea and the U.S., on the other hand, have long said the drills are defensive in nature.  

In July, North Korea conducted its second test of the Hwasong-18, a solid-fuel ICBM, which is quicker to prepare and harder to detect than liquid-fueled missiles. This followed earlier tests in the year, including the Hwasong-17 in March and the Hwasong-15 in February, both of which are claimed to be capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul who has advised the South Korean government believes that the launch appears to show Pyongyang’s clear intent on its strong counter-response stance, asserting its military dominance over the Korean peninsula.

“Particularly, it appears that North Korea is aiming to engage the United States in nuclear disarmament negotiations under its status as a nuclear power,” said Yang. 

“In 2024, Pyongyang is expected even further to ramp up its military demonstrations against the U.S. This could include the launch of additional reconnaissance satellites, the firing of medium-range missiles with solid fuel, the launch of ICBMs at normal trajectories, and the deployment of submarine-launched ballistic missiles,” he added.

The latest launch came just 10 hours after the North fired a short-range ballistic missile off its eastern coast late Sunday. The missile, also launched near Pyongyang, flew around 570 kilometers (354 miles), according to the South’s JCS.

Given the trajectory of the ballistic missile, it appears that its probable target was the USS Missouri (SSN-780), a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine that had arrived at a naval base in Busan earlier that day. The straight-line distance from Sunan Airport in Pyongyang to Busan is around 550 kilometers.

The North’s defense ministry issued a statement through the official Korean Central News Agency on Sunday, criticizing the agreement of the U.S.-South Korea NCG meeting as an “overt declaration of nuclear confrontation.” Regarding the arrival of the USS Missouri in Busan, the ministry also stated that such a “precarious situation is adding urgency for our military to adopt a more aggressive response strategy.”

To better deal with North Korea threats, the U.S. on Thursday reaffirmed its joint plan with South Korea and Japan to launch a real-time warning data system for North Korean missiles within this month. The establishment of the system was agreed upon during a summit of the three allies in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in November last year.

A person familiar with the matter in Seoul, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, told RFA that the activation had not yet been implemented for Monday’s launch, without elaborating further.

Edited by Taejun Kang and Mike Firn. Updated to include reaction from the U.S., Japanese and South Korean governments.

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