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North Korea says missile tested Sunday was Hwasong-12 intermediate-range weapon


North Korea confirmed Monday that the weapon launched a day earlier was of its most powerful missile since late 2017, state-run media reported, in a move that could mark an end to nearly four years of leader Kim Jong Un’s self-imposed moratorium on longer-range tests.

Analysts said the missile tested was an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) after Japan and South Korea on Sunday reported the launch — the nuclear-armed country’s seventh round of weapons tests this month. Both Tokyo and Seoul said the missile had reached an altitude of about 2,000 kilometers and flew roughly 800 km on a “lofted” trajectory, meaning it had been launched at an angle to hit a high altitude while limiting its flight distance.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Monday that the “inspection firing test” had “confirmed the accuracy, security and effectiveness of the operation of the Hwasong 12-type weapon system under production.”

The launch had been conducted using the lofted technique “in consideration of the security of neighboring countries,” KCNA said. In 2017, North Korea launched three longer-range missiles over the Japanese archipelago, triggering alarm and anger in Tokyo.

Images accompanying Sunday’s report also showed what the North said was a warhead fitted with a camera that took photos while in space.

Missile experts said that if fired at a shallower angle, the missile could have flown more than 4,500 km, falling short of the continental U.S., but potentially putting the American territory of Guam, home to a key military base, within range.

In an unusual sign for significant weapons tests, Kim did not appear to have attended the launch. It also failed to make the front page of the ruling party’s newspaper. Analysts said the North Korean leader’s absence may have been an attempt to normalize these types of launches as Kim — who marked a decade in power in December — seeks to solidify his country’s position as a de facto nuclear power.

Sunday’s launch was roundly criticized by Tokyo, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, the government’s top spokesman, protesting it and the “high intensity” spate of recent missile tests in some of the current government’s strongest language on the issue to date.

A senior official in Japan’s Foreign Ministry also suggested the possibility that North Korea would test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or resume nuclear tests in the near future, local media reported.

The sentiment was echoed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, despite his position as a staunch proponent of dialogue.

“North Korea has kept the moratorium on nuclear tests and ICBM launches so far while expressing a willingness for dialogue. But if it did fire an intermediate-range ballistic missile, we can consider they have moved closer to scrapping the moratorium,” Moon Jae-in said, according to the Yonhap news agency.

North Korea had warned earlier this month that it was considering restarting “all temporally-suspended activities,” an apparent reference to the moratorium.

In an April 2018 speech, Kim said that “no nuclear test and intermediate-range and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for the DPRK now, given that the work for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets was finished.”

However, it remains unclear if IRBMs were formally included in Kim’s moratorium. Until Sunday’s test, the North had refrained from testing one since September 2017.

The pace of tests in January — believed to be the most launches in a single month since Kim took power — has highlighted Pyongyang’s growing missile capabilities, including weapons designed to evade defenses such as a missile with a maneuverable re-entry vehicle and advanced cruise missiles.

Tests of ballistic missiles by Pyongyang are banned under United Nations sanctions resolutions.

The latest missile launch — not to mention the six other tests in January — could prove to be another security headache for the United States, which is already grappling with the growing threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.

The U.S. State Department condemned Sunday’s test, but with a response employing the boilerplate language largely used in statements after the North’s recent launches of shorter-range weapons.

“Like the DPRK’s recent series of ballistic missile tests, this launch is a clear violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions, and demonstrates the threat the DPRK’s unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs pose to the DPRK’s neighbors and the region as a whole,” a spokesperson said, using the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Denuclearization talks between the North and the United States have been at a standstill since 2019, when they collapsed over differences between sanctions relief and how much of its nuclear program Pyongyang was willing to give up.

Officials and experts say the latest launches highlight how crushing sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic have done little to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile ambitions.

Following the conclusion of a lengthy review of the United States’ North Korea policy earlier this year, Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, has repeatedly said that his administration harbors no hostile intent toward Pyongyang and is prepared to meet “unconditionally,” with a goal of “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Kim, however, has condemned the U.S. offers of dialogue as a “petty trick.”

Observers say the North Korean strongman has no intention of relinquishing his nuclear arsenal as he believes it is key to his regime’s survival.

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