The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, took a significant step Wednesday in the development of a powerful ballistic missile intended to reach U.S. bases in the Pacific, launching one of the weapons about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) high after five failed attempts in recent months.
The DPRK’s suspected Musudan tests worry Washington and its allies, Tokyo and Seoul, because the missile’s potential 3,500-kilometer (2,180-mile) range puts much of Asia and the Pacific, including U.S. military bases there, within reach.
Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said the most recent launch demonstrated a “certain level of capability,” and could lead to a further strengthening of the DPRK’s ballistic missile capabilities that can cover Japanese territory.
Each new test — apparently linked to a command from DPRK leader Kim Jong Un — likely provides valuable insights to the DPRK’s scientists and military officials as they push toward their goal of a nuclear and missile program that can threaten the U.S. mainland. Pyongyang earlier this year conducted a nuclear test, its fourth, and launched a long-range rocket that outsiders say was a cover for a test of banned missile technology.
A statement from South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said a suspected first Musudan launch from the east coast city of Wonsan failed. It didn’t elaborate, but Japan’s Defense Ministry said the missile fragmented and pieces fell into waters off the Korean Peninsula’s east coast.
Later Wednesday, the South’s military said the DPRK fired another suspected Musudan, which flew about 400 kilometers (245 miles). Seoul didn’t immediately classify this launch as either a success or failure.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said that its radar analysis found that the missile reached an altitude exceeding 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), which suggests it was a Musudan missile.
“We have to see it as a success,” Lee Choon Geun, an analyst at South Korea’s state-funded Science and Technology Policy Institute, said of the second launch. “No other (previous) missiles fired by North Korea have ever flown that high.”
The U.S. Strategic Command in Hawaii said its systems detected and tracked two suspected DPRK Musudan missiles that fell into the Sea of Japan. They didn’t pose a threat to North America, it said.
In April, the DPRK attempted unsuccessfully to launch three suspected Musudan missiles, but all exploded midair or crashed, according to South Korean defense officials. Earlier this month, the DPRK had another suspected Musudan failure, South Korean officials said.
Before April’s launches, the DPRK had never flight-tested a Musudan missile, although one was displayed during a military parade in 2010 in Pyongyang.
The string of recent launch attempts shows the DPRK is pushing hard to upgrade its missile capability in defiance of U.S.-led international pressure. The DPRK was slapped with the strongest U.N. sanctions in two decades after its nuclear test and long-range rocket launch earlier this year.
“These provocations only serve to increase the international community’s resolve to counter [the DPRK’s] prohibited activities, including through implementing existing U.N. Security Council sanctions,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said. “We intend to raise our concerns at the U.N. to bolster international resolve in holding [the DPRK] accountable for these provocative actions.”
South Korea’s Unification Ministry called the launches a “clear provocation.” In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was also critical, saying, “We find it utterly unforgivable.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that Beijing didn’t consider the missile launches to be an act of defiance against China, the DPRK’s long-time ally with whom its relations have cooled substantially in recent years.
“To say such an act taken by the DPRK shows disapproval against China is reading too much into it,” Hua said at a press briefing, “As we have said many times, the nuclear issue of the DPRK has its complicated root causes and therefore requires comprehensive means to resolve it. The peace and stability of the peninsula serves the interests of all and we have been calling for all the parties to make joint efforts in this regard. As for China, we have been using various occasions to openly and fairly elaborate our position on this issue to both the DPRK and the rest of the world.”
The DPRK has recently claimed a series of breakthroughs in its push to build a long-range nuclear missile that can strike the American mainland. But South Korean officials have said the DPRK doesn’t yet possess such a weapon.
The DPRK, however, has already deployed a variety of missiles that can reach most targets in South Korea and Japan, including American military bases in the countries. The Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 U.S. soldiers are stationed in South Korea to deter possible aggression from the DPRK; tens of thousands more are stationed in Japan.
Story by the Associated Press
Balbina Hwang on DPRK’s latest mid-range missile
For more on the news of the DPRK’s latest missile tests, CCTV America’s Nathan King spoke with Balbina Hwang, a visiting professor of Georgetown University.