North Korea on Friday claimed to have successfully tested its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missile yet, saying its nuclear forces were "fully ready to thoroughly check and contain any dangerous military attempts of the US imperialists".
The claims came after Pyongyang on Thursday raised tensions in East Asia by testing a missile the South Korean military said reached an altitude of more than 6,000km – the highest a North Korean missile has ever flown.
North Korean state media said on Friday that Thursday’s test was of a Hwasong-17, which has been described as Pyongyang’s “monster missile” and is thought to be the world’s largest road-mobile liquid propellant ICBM.
But some observers cast doubt on the North Korean claims. Colin Zwirko, a senior analyst at Seoul-based information service NK Pro, cited satellite imagery as suggesting the Hwasong-17 test might actually have been unsuccessfully conducted last week, when a missile exploded 20km over Pyongyang, North Korea's capital.
“Multiple pieces of visual evidence suggest North Korea’s version of events is misleading at best, and possibly a complete fabrication of a successful Hwasong-17 test at worst,” Mr Zwirko wrote.
South Korean state news agency Yonhap reported that senior officials in Seoul believed Thursday's test might in fact have been of the smaller Hwasong-15 ICBM. That would imply that North Korea could be attempting to pass off last week's botched test as a success.
The missile launched on Thursday travelled 1,080km for about 71 minutes from its launch site near Pyongyang. It landed in the Sea of Japan, which is known in Korea as the East Sea.
North Korean state media on Friday released images of leader Kim Jong-un overseeing the launch of a Hwasong-17, which has an estimated range of more than 15,000km and was first revealed to the world at a night-time parade in Pyongyang in October 2020.
Sporting aviator sunglasses and a leather jacket, Mr Kim watched the launch from a customised observation bus and celebrated with his officials.
“The dazzling light of fire heated the ground like a mass of flames along with a loud explosion shaking the earth and sky and a tremendous missile charged with the irresistible force of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was launched to the outer space from the ground,” wrote state media outlet KCNA.
Whether or not it was a successful launch of a Hwasong-17, Pyongyang's new round of long-range ICBM tests mark the end of a self-imposed moratorium that dates back to 2018, when Mr Kim was engaged in intense summit diplomacy with then US president Donald Trump.
Ankit Panda, a nuclear weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said a successful test of the Hwasong-17 would demonstrate the nuclear threat posed by North Korea to the US and its allies was growing “more complex and dangerous”.
"This missile is large enough to one day accommodate multiple warheads bound for US-based targets," said Mr Panda. "That complicates the arithmetic for US homeland missile defence and increases the ability for North Korea to inflict damage against the US homeland should deterrence fail."
He added North Korea would probably conduct more ballistic missile and nuclear tests as it made progress in developing its arsenal despite a tough international sanctions regime and the strong opposition of the US, South Korea and Japan.
“Sanctions irk and inconvenience North Korea, but they’ll do little to dissuade Kim from seeking an evermore sophisticated and robust nuclear deterrent,” Mr Panda said.
“We’ll see rote reactions from Washington and allies – sanctions, consultations, statements of condemnation and military exercises – but the broader situation will remain unchanged.”
Some analysts have argued Russia's recent invasion of Ukraine may have reinforced Mr Kim's determination to develop his own nuclear arsenal.
North Korea has been a vocal defender of the Russian invasion, with the foreign ministry this month accusing the US and the west of having "systematically undermined" European security through pursuit of Nato expansion.
"The US and the west, having devastated Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, are mouthing phrases about 'respect for sovereignty' and 'territorial integrity' over the Ukrainian situation which was detonated by themselves," KCNA quoted the ministry as saying. "That does not stand to reason at all." – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022