North Korea has confirmed that the projectile it fired this Thursday is the largest missile in its history, an intercontinental Hwasong-17 never tested before and that it reached a height and distance far greater than that of any other rocket launched by Pyongyang. This initiative has set off alarm bells in the region. The North Korean supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, personally approved and supervised the launch, with which the regime seeks to “show its might” and its preparation for “a long confrontation with the American imperialists”, according to the North Korean news agency KCNA.
The intercontinental rocket (ICBM, for its acronym in English), nicknamed “the monster” by international analysts, reached a maximum height of 6,248.5 kilometers and traveled a distance of 1,090 kilometers, to stay in the air for 4,052 seconds. (67.5 minutes), according to KCNA. It fell into the sea about 150 kilometers from the Japanese coast, the closest to Japanese territory in a North Korean missile test so far.
The test, the latest of a dozen increasingly powerful missiles so far this year, has sparked a flurry of contacts between regional governments and the United States. The US president, Joe Biden, has spoken in recent hours with the head of the Japanese Government, Fumio Kishida. The Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has done it with his South Korean counterpart, Chung Eui-yong. The UN Security Council has called an extraordinary meeting this Friday to address the launch. Washington has announced new sanctions against North Korean individuals and entities for a test that it has denounced as violating several United Nations resolutions.
The launch has occurred at a delicate moment on the geopolitical board. The United States and Europe focus their attention on the war in Ukraine. South Korea is in the midst of a presidential transition process, waiting for the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol to take over as head of state after his victory in the elections on the 9th. Yoon could adopt a heavy-handed policy towards Pyongyang, after a five-year term by his predecessor, the progressive Moon Jae-in, who made rapprochement with his northern neighbor one of the hallmarks of his policy.
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Immediately after the launch, the South Korean military launched live-fire military exercises using air, land and sea missiles.
The new rocket – which had been shown in a night military parade in 2020, but had not been fired until now – seeks to dissuade the United States from taking any military initiative against Pyongyang when the negotiating process that both governments began in 2018 to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula has been at an impasse for three years. “It will perform its mission as a powerful deterrent in the face of nuclear war,” KCNA has assured when reporting on the launch. “It will make the world clearly aware of the might of our strategic armed forces,” adds the agency.
End to the moratorium
North Korea had imposed a moratorium on long-range missile tests — now volatilized with this new launch — in 2018, on the eve of beginning the negotiating process with a summit in Singapore between Kim Jong-un and the then US president. Donald Trump. The last time the regime tested an intercontinental missile, capable of reaching any point on US soil, was in November 2017, when tensions between the two governments threatened to escalate into violent conflict. So, the Hwasong-15 had traveled 906 kilometers and had reached a maximum height of 4,475 kilometers.
With no signs of recovery in the negotiations, and after the three summits between Kim and Trump in a year yielded hardly any results, the North Korean leader gave orders last year to develop new high-tech weapons, a priority that was included in the new five-year plan (2021-2025). In September last year, Pyongyang completed the first test of what it said was a hypersonic missile.
Since the start of this year, North Korea has carried out a dozen missile tests, a pace not seen since the worst of 2017. In January, the regime had hinted that a new ICBM test was being considered. : At a meeting of his politburo, he indicated that he was studying “the restart of all temporarily suspended activities.”
This Thursday’s launch adds to another series of signs that point to North Korea returning to the path followed before 2018, and the possible return of tensions from then. Kim Jong-un has ordered the modernization of the Sohae space launch center. And satellite images also seem to show the start of construction work at the Punggye-ri nuclear test center, according to experts from the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies. Pyongyang had closed those facilities during the 2018 thaw, when it invited foreign journalists to witness the blowing up of some of the tunnels and the sealing of the accesses.
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