North Korea conducted what is thought to be its largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test ever on Thursday, the South Korean and Japanese militaries said, marking a dramatic end to a self-imposed moratorium on long-range testing.
It would be the first full-capability launch of the nuclear-armed state’s largest missiles since 2017, and represents a major step in the North’s development of weapons that might be able to deliver nuclear warheads anywhere in the United States.
The North’s return to major weapons tests also poses a new national security headache for U.S. President Joe Biden as he responds to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and presents a challenge to South Korea’s incoming conservative administration.
“This launch is a brazen violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilising the security situation in the region,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement condemning the launch. “The door has not closed on diplomacy, but Pyongyang must immediately cease its destabilising actions.”
North Korea had put its ICBM and nuclear tests on hold since 2017, but has defended the weapons as necessary for self-defence, and said U.S. diplomatic overtures are insincere as long as Washington and its allies maintain “hostile policies” such as sanctions and military drills.
South Korea’s outgoing President Moon Jae-in, who made engaging North Korea a major goal of his administration, condemned the launch as “a breach of the moratorium on ICBM launches that Chairman Kim Jong Un himself promised to the international community”.
It was also a serious threat to the Korean peninsula, the region and the international community, and a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, added Moon, who is due to leave office in May.
The latest missile launch was an “unacceptable act of violence”, Japanese Prime Minster Fumio Kishida said.
Thursday’s ICBM launch prompted South Korea to test-fire a volley of its own, smaller ballistic and air-to-ground missiles to demonstrate it has the “capability and readiness” to precisely strike missile launch sites, command and support facilities, and other targets in North Korea if necessary, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
Amid a flurry of diplomacy in 2018, Kim declared a self-imposed moratorium on testing ICBMs and nuclear weapons, but suggested the North could resume such testing amid stalled denuclearisation talks.
That moratorium had often been touted as a success by former U.S. President Donald Trump, who held historic summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019, but never gained a concrete pact to limit the North’s nuclear or missile arsenals.
On Jan. 19, North Korea said it would bolster its defences against the United States and consider resuming “all temporarily suspended activities”, according to state news agency KCNA, an apparent reference to the self-imposed moratorium.
New construction has also been spotted at North Korea’s only known nuclear test site, which was shuttered in 2018.
The looming prospect of possible nuclear tests, more joint U.S.-South Korea military drills, and the new conservative South Korean president mean “all conditions are present for a tit-for-tat chain reaction of escalatory steps”, said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.
“Though Biden would prefer to focus exclusively on the Ukraine crisis, it’s likely he will soon face crisis-level tensions between the Koreas,” he said.
With the sanctions regime at an impasse at the U.N. Security Council and North Korea opposed to talks on denuclearisation for the foreseeable future, Pyongyang is now likely capable of making serious progress on its weapons development programme with little risk of substantive punishment, O’Carroll added.