North Korea’s Latest Missile Test Appears to Be Its Boldest in Years

SEOUL — North Korea on Sunday carried out what appeared to be its boldest ballistic missile test in years, raising the stakes in a flurry of launches that analysts said were meant to put pressure on President Biden.

The missile was launched at 7:52 a.m. from the North Korean province of Jagang, which borders China, and flew across the North before falling into the sea off the country’s east coast, the South Korean military said. It was the North’s seventh missile test this month.

The office of South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, called the projectile an intermediate-range ballistic missile and condemned the test as a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. Flight data suggested it was the North’s most powerful launch since November 2017, when it tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that flew much higher.

Mr. Moon warned that North Korea could soon end the self-imposed moratorium on long-range ballistic missile and nuclear tests that its leader, Kim Jong-un, announced in 2018. Last ​week, Mr. Kim ​suggested that his government might resume such tests.

“If it’s an intermediate-range ballistic missile that they launched, it means that North Korea has come close to abandoning its moratorium,” Mr. Moon said at a meeting of his National Security Council, which he convened in response to the Sunday launch, his office said.

“North Korea must stop raising tensions and pressure and accept offers from South Korea and the United States to restart dialogue,” he said.

The United States Indo-Pacific Command condemned the launch and urged the North “to refrain from further destabilizing acts,” though it said the test had posed no immediate threat to the United States or its allies. In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters that Japan “strongly” protested the test.

North Korea appears to have carried out more missile tests in January than in any month since Mr. Kim came to power a decade ago. The launch on Sunday was its third in the last week.

Mr. Kim has vowed to focus on expanding the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities since 2019, when his direct diplomacy with then-President Donald J. Trump collapsed. He has rebuffed the Biden administration’s repeated offers to resume talks “without preconditions”; instead, he has ordered his government to prepare for “long-term confrontation” with the United States.

Mr. Moon and South Korean analysts said the recent tests reminded them of 2017. That year, the first of Mr. Trump’s presidency, the North steadily escalated its weapons tests, from short-range missile launches to intermediate-range ballistic missile tests. Eventually, it tested three ICBMs and what it said was a hydrogen bomb.

Mr. Trump responded by persuading the U.N. Security Council to impose more sanctions on the North, and by famously threatening the country with “fire and fury.” He went on to meet directly with Mr. Kim three times, but their personal diplomacy ended with no agreement on rolling back North Korea’s nuclear program or lifting the sanctions.

“It has been the same cycle repeating itself: North Korean provocations, followed by a round of negotiations and their collapse and a pause in diplomacy,” said Cheon Seong-whun, a former head of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-funded research institute in Seoul. “North Korea is now starting the cycle all over again, raising tensions with missile provocations.”

“Its goal is to make the United States and its allies accept its nuclear arsenal as a fait accompli,” he said.

The last time North Korea launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile was in September 2017, when it tested its Hwasong-12 missile.

The missile launched on Sunday was fired at a steep angle, reaching an altitude of 1,242 miles while covering a distance of 497 miles, South Korean defense officials said. When North Korea tests intermediate- and long-range missiles, it usually launches them at a steep angle.

That ensures that they don’t fly over Japan, which would be considered extremely provocative by Tokyo, Washington and their allies. Such missiles could cover much more distance if they were launched at normal ballistic missile trajectories.

The flight data from Sunday’s launch was comparable to that of a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile that North Korea launched in May 2017. That missile reached an altitude of 1,310 miles, landing in the sea 480 miles from the launch site.

But later that year, North Korea carried out more provocative tests of the same type of missile, launching them on trajectories that sent them over Japan. In those two tests, the missiles flew up to 2,300 miles before landing in the Pacific. That range would enable them to reach American bases on Guam.

When the North last tested an ICBM, in 2017, it reached an altitude of 2,796 miles and covered a distance of 596 miles. After that test, North Korea claimed that its ballistic missiles could target parts or all of the continental United States with nuclear warheads.

Mr. Cheon and other analysts said they did not expect the North to test another ICBM immediately. They said it was likelier to raise tensions gradually, with a series of increasingly provocative moves.

Still, Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said it was only “a matter of time” before the North launched another ICBM. “North Korea thinks that Washington is ignoring it despite its recent tests of short-range missiles,” he said. “So it is upping its pressure on Washington, calculating the timing for an ICBM test based on how Washington will respond.”

The recent launches have surprised some analysts in the region, who had expected the North to refrain from such provocations before the Winter Olympics in Beijing, which start this week. China is the North’s only major ally.

The United States’ worsening relations with China and Russia may have given Mr. Kim an opening to test weapons with impunity. When Washington asked the United Nations Security Council to impose more sanctions on North Korea for the recent tests, both Beijing and Moscow vetoed the move.

The tests enable the North to upgrade its missile forces while putting more pressure on the Biden administration to come to the table with more favorable terms, analysts said.

Analysts said Mr. Kim also hoped to boost morale at home as his government prepares for two major events — the 80th anniversary of the birth of his father, Kim Jong-il, in February, and the 110th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, in April. Both preceded him as North Korea’s leaders.

On Friday, North Korea’s state media said Mr. Kim had visited “a munitions factory producing a major weapon system” to encourage his weapons developers.

Professor Yang said the North was likely to keep testing missiles at least through May, when whoever wins South Korea’s presidential election in March will take office. “It will create an extreme situation before switching to a new phase of diplomacy with Washington and the new government in Seoul,” he said.


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