SEOUL, South Korea — After 2 ½ months of relative peace, North Korea launched its most powerful weapon yet early Wednesday, claiming a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile that some observers believe could put Washington and the entire eastern U.S. seaboard within range.
The North said in a special televised announcement hours after the launch that it had successfully fired what it called the Hwasong-15, a new nuclear-capable ICBM that’s “significantly more” powerful than the long-range weapons it’s previously tested. Outside governments and analysts backed up the North’s claim to a jump in missile capability.
A resumption of Pyongyang’s torrid testing pace in pursuit of its goal of a viable arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles that can hit the U.S. mainland had been widely expected, but the apparent power and suddenness of the new test still jolted the Korean Peninsula and Washington. The launch at 3:17 a.m. local time and midday in Washington indicated an effort to perfect the element of surprise and to obtain maximum attention in the United States.
In a government statement released through state media, North Korea said the Hwasong-15, the “greatest ICBM,” could be armed with a “super-large heavy nuclear warhead” and striking the “whole mainland” of the United States. The North said the missile, which was fired near the capital Pyongyang, reached a maximum height of 2,780 miles and traveled 590 miles before accurately hitting a sea target, similar to the flight data announced by South Korea’s military.
The North said the missile, which was fired at the “highest” launch angle, didn’t pose a security threat to its neighbors. It said leader Kim Jong Un after the successful launch “declared with pride” that the country has achieved its goal of becoming a “rocket power.”
The firing is a clear message of defiance aimed at the Trump administration, which had just restored the North to a U.S. list of terror sponsors. It also ruins nascent diplomatic efforts, raises fears of war or a pre-emptive U.S. strike and casts a deeper shadow over the security of the Winter Olympics early next year in South Korea.
A rattled Seoul responded by almost immediately launching three of its own missiles in a show of force. The South’s president, Moon Jae-in, expressed worry that North Korea’s growing missile threat could force the United States to attack the North before it masters a nuclear-tipped long-range missile, something experts say may be imminent.
“If North Korea completes a ballistic missile that could reach from one continent to another, the situation can spiral out of control,” Moon said at an emergency meeting in Seoul, according to his office. “We must stop a situation where North Korea miscalculates and threatens us with nuclear weapons or where the United States considers a pre-emptive strike.”
The launch is North Korea’s first since it fired an intermediate-range missile over Japan on Sept. 15, and may have broken any efforts at diplomacy meant to end the North’s nuclear ambitions. U.S. officials have sporadically floated the idea of direct talks with North Korea if it maintained restraint.
The missile also appears to improve on North Korea’s past launches.
If flown on a standard trajectory, instead of Wednesday’s lofted angle, the missile would have a range of more than 8,100 miles, said U.S. scientist David Wright, a physicist who closely tracks North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.
“Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington, D.C., and in fact any part of the continental United States,” Wright wrote in a blog post for the Union for Concerned Scientists.
Hawaii, at a distance of 4,660 miles from North Korea, is much closer. A missile would arrive in 20 minutes.
An intercontinental ballistic missile test is considered particularly provocative, and indications that it flew higher than past launches suggest progress by Pyongyang in developing a weapon of mass destruction that could strike the U.S. mainland. President Donald Trump has vowed to prevent North Korea from having that capability — using military force if necessary.
In response to the launch, Trump said the United States will “take care of it.” He told reporters after the launch: “It is a situation that we will handle.” He did not elaborate.
The U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting for today at the request of Japan, the U.S. and South Korea.