North Korea on Thursday conducted its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch in a month, possibly testing a new type of more mobile, harder-to-detect weapons system.
North Korea launched the missile towards the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, South Korean officials said, in an extension of the North’s provocative run of missile tests.
The launch prompted Japan to issue an evacuation order on a northern island, and though it was later retracted, it shows the vigilance of North Korea’s neighbours over its evolving missile threats.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile launched on a high angle from near the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and fell in the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan following a 620-mile long flight.
They described the missile as having a medium or longer range.
The US National Security Council called it a long-range missile and Japan’s defence minister an ICBM-class weapon.
If the launch involved a solid-fuel ICBM, it would be the North’s first test of such a weapon.
Liquid fuel must be injected before the weapon is launched, but it’s harder to detect launches of solid-propellant weapons in advance because the fuel is already loaded inside.
North Korea’s previous ICBM tests all involved liquid-fuelled weapons.
A solid-propellant ICBM is one of the key high-tech weapons that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to build to better cope with what he calls US military threats.
Other weapons he wants to acquire are a multiwarhead missile, a nuclear-powered submarine, a hypersonic missile and a spy satellite.
US National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the latest launch “needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilizing the security situation in the region”.
Ms Watson said the United States will take all necessary measures to ensure the security of the American homeland and South Korean and Japanese allies.
During an emergency National Security Council (NSC) meeting in South Korea, officials condemned the launch and stressed the need to tighten three-way security cooperation with Washington and Tokyo.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters in Tokyo that he planned a Japanese NSC meeting to discuss the launch.
The top nuclear envoys of Seoul, Washington and Tokyo also held a telephone conversation where they called for a “decisive and united international response” to North Korean provocations and stronger efforts to stem illicit North Korean activities that allegedly fund its weapons programme.
North Korea commonly test-launches missiles toward the international waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.
All its past ICBM launches were made in the area, but on elevated trajectories to avoid neighbouring countries.
South Korea and Japan typically do not issue evacuation orders for North Korean launches unless they determine weapons flew in the direction of their territories.
But the Japanese government still urged people on the northernmost island of Hokkaido to seek shelter.
The government then corrected and retracted its missile alert, saying its analysis showed there was no possibility of a missile landing near Hokkaido.
It was unclear why Japan issued the order, but the incident suggested it was being cautious about North Korea’s evolving missile threats.
Asked over the accuracy of Japan’s information dissemination about future North Korean launches, Mr Kishida, the prime minister, said the government is checking related information including alerts.