North Korea tests powerful ballistic missile

Hopes that peace talks on the peninsula could make progress are fading quickly

A missile is launched from rail lines during North Korean firing drills earlier in January. Reuters
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North Korea conducted its largest missile test since 2017 on Sunday, sending a suspected intermediate-range ballistic missile soaring into space.

The launch was widely regarded as a further step closer to a resumption of long-range testing by the nuclear-armed country.

South Korea's joint chiefs of staff said a projectile believed to be a single ballistic missile was launched at about 7:52am from North Korea's Jagang Province towards the ocean off its east coast. The test appeared to involve an intermediate-range ballistic missile, which North Korea has not tested since 2017.

South Korea's National Security Council convened a rare emergency meeting presided over by President Moon Jae-in.

The launch takes North Korea a step closer to fully scrapping a self-imposed moratorium on testing its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, Mr Moon said.

He said a flurry of missile tests this month was reminiscent of heightened tensions in 2017, when North Korea conducted nuclear tests and launched its largest missiles, including some that flew over Japan.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has said he is no longer bound by the moratorium, which included halting nuclear weapons tests and was announced in 2018 amid diplomacy and summits with US president Donald Trump.

North Korea's rulers suggested this month they could restart those testing activities because the US and its allies had shown no sign of dropping their “hostile policies.”

“The United States condemns these actions and calls on (North Korea) to refrain from further destabilising acts,” the US military's Indo-Pacific Command said of Sunday's launch.

A US State Department spokesman said the launch demonstrated the threat posed by North Korea's unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes, and called on Pyongyang to engage in “sustained and substantive” dialogue.

Bigger missiles

It is unclear if intermediate range missiles were included in Kim's moratorium, but those, too, have not been tested since 2017. South Korea's JCS and Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno separately said the missile was estimated to have reached an altitude of 2,000 kilometres and flown for 30 minutes to a distance of 800km. An inter-continental missile could travel seven times that distance.

Missile experts said the data could indicate a test of an IRBM such as the Hwasong-12, which was last tested in 2017, or a new type.

“Regardless of whether it’s a IRBM or ICBM, this is a strategic missile of some sort and clearly not the same as the prior tests in the January 2022 test series to date,” George William Herbert, an adjunct professor at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies and a missile consultant, said on Twitter.

The launch could make January the busiest month yet for North Korea's missile programme, which analysts say is expanding and developing new capabilities despite strict sanctions and UN Security Council resolutions that ban the country's ballistic missile tests.

Its latest launches included a test of two short-range ballistic missiles and their warheads on Thursday, and an updated long-range cruise missile system tested on Tuesday.

“Kim seems to be ramping up tests in bid to pressure both Washington and Beijing over sanctions just ahead of the Olympics,” said Uk Yang, research fellow at the Centre for Foreign Policy and National Security.

Hypersonic test

The tests would also appear to be the final nail in the coffin for Mr Moon's last-ditch push for a peace deal with North Korea before he leaves office in May.

“It's clear that North Korea is saying inter-Korean relations will need to start from scratch.”

In a recent speech, Kim Jong-un called for the military to be bolstered with cutting-edge technology at a time when talks with South Korea and the US have stalled.

Since then, North Korea has tested a dizzying array of weapon types, launch locations, and increasing sophistication.

Jagang Province was the site of two launches this month of what North Korea said was a “hypersonic missile,” which could reach high speeds while flying and manoeuvring at relatively low altitudes, but the ranges reported on Sunday were higher and farther than those earlier tests.

“The ballistic missile launch and the ones before it are a threat to our country, the region and the international community,” Mr Matsuno said. “This series of launches violate UN resolutions and we strongly protest this action by North Korea.”

Updated: April 06, 2022, 11:55 AM