US confirms North Korea tested intercontinental missile

Rex Tillerson calls for global action against Pyongyang after latest test

Hwasong-14 test launch in North Korea. Photograph: Korean Central News Agency

Hwasong-14 test launch in North Korea. Photograph: Korean Central News Agency


North Korea has risked provoking a confrontation with Washington after it claimed on Tuesday to have launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), an achievement that would be a key step towards developing a rocket capable of hitting the US.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson confirmed on Tuesday that North Korea’s latest missile test was with an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Mr Tillerson called for global action after the test, calling it a new escalation of Pyongyang’s nuclear threat.

In a statement, Mr Tillerson warned that any country that hosts North Korean workers, or provides economic or military aid to Pyongyang, or fails to implement UN sanctions “is aiding and abetting a dangerous regime”.

“All nations should publicly demonstrate to North Korea that there are consequences to their pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

US and South Korean troops fired missiles into the waters off South Korea, the US military said on Tuesday, in a show of force after North Korea’s ICBM test.

Pyongyang’s test-firing saw the missile fly off North Korea’s east coast for nearly 40 minutes and reach an altitude of more than 2,500km, characteristics that led analysts to give Pyongyang’s claim credibility.

They said a long-range missile with such capabilities could reach Alaska.

The move threatens to escalate tensions with US president Donald Trump, who earlier vowed a test of a long-range missile “won’t happen”.

US security agencies believe Pyongyang is attempting to miniaturise a nuclear weapon and increase the range of its missiles to threaten the American west coast.

The US has requested a closed-door meeting of the United Nations Security Council on North Korea’s latest missile launch, a spokesman for the US mission to the United Nations said on Tuesday.

The spokesman said the meeting of the 15-member council was likely to be scheduled for Wednesday.

Long-range capabilities

North Korea’s assertion it had successfully tested the Hwasong-14 rocket was made through its official state broadcaster.

Pyongyang has for months claimed such long-range capabilities, but the US and its allies in the region say it has never previously tested such a missile successfully.

Mr Trump has spent months attempting to convince China, Pyongyang’s only major international ally, to use its influence to clamp down on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions, an entreaty he repeated after the new launch.

“Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer,” Mr Trump wrote on Twitter. “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”

A news presenter on North Korean state TV said Mr Kim had ordered the test-firing “with his own handwriting” and claimed it travelled a distance of 930km and reached an altitude of 2,800km.

North Korea regularly overstates its military capabilities and such claims are usually treated by regional military rivals with caution. However, numerous analysts said there was significant evidence the test missile was an ICBM.

Given the flight time and altitude reached, the missile could have a range of more than 6,500km if fired at a standard trajectory, said David Wright, a prominent North Korea missile expert. ICBMs are typically classified as having a range of more than 5,500km.

“That range would not be enough to reach the lower 48 states or the large islands of Hawaii, but would allow it to reach all of Alaska,” Mr Wright wrote on the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Jang Young-geun, a professor at Korea Aerospace University, said he was “sure” it was an ICBM and estimated a flying range of 8,000-9,000km.

Nuclear bomb

Although the North Korean test marks a major achievement for Pyongyang’s weapons programme, analysts believe Mr Kim has had far less success in developing a nuclear bomb small enough to be delivered atop a missile.

At a meeting in Moscow, the Russian and Chinese presidents condemned the test as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions and urged North Korea, South Korea and the US to refrain from any steps that could further escalate tensions.

Appearing at a news conference after meeting China’s Xi Jinping, Russian president Vladimir Putin said he backed a Beijing-led initiative that would freeze North Korea’s nuclear programme in exchange for the end of “large-scale military exercises” between the US and South Korea.

Washington has rejected the suggestion in the past. In Seoul, South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, called on North Korea to immediately halt its provocations, adding: “I hope North Korea will not cross the point of no return.”

“If it is found to be an ICBM, I believe pressure and sanctions will be strengthened,” said Yoon Young-chan, Mr Moon’s chief press secretary.

He added that the president’s “overall direction”, which has included more of an open door with Pyongyang than his predecessor, would not be changed.

The US military initially identified the rocket as intermediate range. The US Pacific Command said it tracked the missile for 37 minutes before it fell into the Sea of Japan.

While the Pacific headquarters said it was still working on a “more detailed assessment”, it had insisted “the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America”.

No damage

The missile appeared to land in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, which stretches 200 nautical miles from the Japanese coast, but no damage was reported to any vessel, according to Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary.

The Trump administration has used a series of carrots and sticks in an attempt to get Beijing to be more assertive with Mr Kim, holding out the prospect of stronger trade ties if China co-operates.

In recent days, the White House has relied increasingly on sticks, however, approving a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, applying sanctions on a Chinese bank and sending a US navy destroyer near a disputed island in the South China Sea.

The new missile launch was the first in under a month after North Korea test-fired on June 8th what are believed to be surface-to-ship cruise missiles that travelled 200km off its eastern coast. Pyongyang said it was capable of striking enemy warships “at will”.

The latest missile launch is the 11th test this year by the isolated rogue regime.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

Additional reporting: Reuters and PA