North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile on Friday that, for the first time, appeared capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States, according to experts — a milestone that American presidents have long declared the United States could not tolerate.
The launch, the second of an intercontinental missile in 24 days, did not answer the question of whether the North has mastered all the technologies necessary to deliver a nuclear weapon to targets in the lower 48 states. But just a few days ago, the Defense Intelligence Agency warned the Trump administration that the North would probably be able to do so within a year, and Friday’s test left little doubt that Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is speeding toward that goal.
The missile launched on Friday remained aloft for roughly 47 minutes, according to American, South Korean and Japanese officials, following a steep trajectory that took it roughly 2,300 miles into space. It then turned and arced sharply down into the sea near the northernmost Japanese island, Hokkaido.
If that trajectory had been flattened out — a step the North may have avoided for fear of provoking an American military response — the missile could have put a number of major American cities at risk, experts say. The Pentagon was quick to declare that the “North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) determined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America.” That statement, while true, ignored the potential long-term implications of the launch.
“Depending on how heavy a warhead it carries, this latest North Korean missile would easily reach the West Coast of the United States with a range of 9,000 to 10,000 kilometers,” or 5,600 to 6,200 miles, said Kim Dong-yub, a defense analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul. “With this missile, North Korea leaves no doubt that its missile has a range that covers most of the United States.”
The United States has gone to extraordinary lengths — feeding flawed partsinto the North Korean production system and mounting internet attacks to cause test failures — to slow North Korea’s missile program. A few hours before the test, Congress approved the latest round of sanctions to squeeze the North.
While there have been some tactical successes, they have not stopped the weapons program. And Mr. Kim, determined to show the United States that he would not waver from his goal, has stepped up the pace of testing. In his remarks on Saturday, Mr. Kim said that the threat of sanctions or military action against the North “only strengthens our resolve and further justifies our possession of nuclear weapons.”
In a break with past practice, the White House turned out a statement in the name of President Trump, but it made no mention of the distance the missile flew or its implications. It read like many of President Barack Obama’s and President George W. Bush’s statements at similar moments.
“By threatening the world, these weapons and tests further isolate North Korea, weaken its economy, and deprive its people,” Mr. Trump said. “The United States will take all necessary steps to ensure the security of the American homeland and protect our allies in the region.”
Mr. Trump hoped to end North Korea’s provocations with the help of China, and he thought he had an agreement with President Xi Jinping to pressure Mr. Kim. But over the past two months, Mr. Trump discovered, as his predecessors did, that the Chinese are more concerned about preventing the collapse of North Korea’s government, and the chaos that would ensue, than they are in trade and energy sanctions that might truly change its behavior.
China had no official comment immediately after the test, but Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said that the Chinese government would interpret the test as affirmation of its view that Mr. Trump’s policies toward North Korea were failing.
But China has not been able to change Mr. Kim’s behavior either, Mr. Shi said. China has not demonstrated an ability “to persuade Kim Jong-un to abandon what he is determined to do,” he said.
The overall relationship between Washington and Beijing is steadily souring, Mr. Shi said, and in such an atmosphere it would be difficult to find much common ground on North Korea.
Source: NY Times