On Tuesday, July 4, North Korea launched a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. The launch took place at Panghyon Airport in North Pyongan Province at 9:40 a.m. South Korean time, according to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The missile flew to a range of more than 930 kilometers, according to South Korean military sources. According to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, the observed apogee of the missile “greatly exceeded” 2,500 kilometers.
U.S. Pacific Command rated the missile as a “land-based, intermediate range ballistic missile.” The United States defines “intermediate range” missiles as any missiles with a range of between 3,000 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers. Any missile with a range in excess of 5,500 kilometers is considered an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by the United States.
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Given the observed range and apogee, this missile almost certainly is capable of flight past 5,500 kilometers and can hit most of Alaska. “The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) assessed that the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America,” Pacific Command noted in its statement on the launch.
North Korea has two known missiles that fit the description of a “land-based, intermediate range ballistic missile”: the Musudan, which hasn’t been observed in a successful flight test since June 2016, and the Hwasong-12 (KN-17).
North Korea’s progress towards an intercontinental ballistic missile has gained speed this year as it has shown off indigenous liquid-fuel engines and progress in reentry vehicle technology, all while loudly signaling its intent to strike the continental United States with a nuclear-capable ICBM. Tuesday’s test was North Korea’s first test of a strategic missile since its flight test of the KN-18 in late-May.
The IRBM in question was likely flown at a lofted trajectory, judging by Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga’s reveal of a flight time of 40 minutes. (U.S. Pacific Command said the flight time was 37 minutes.) North Korea commonly “lofts” its missiles, meaning it fires them at a steep trajectory to avoid overflying Japan and other countries by drastically reducing the range.
Tuesday’s missile additionally became the sixth North Korean ballistic missile to splash down in Japan’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ) since a Nodong medium-range ballistic missile did so last August. Earlier this year, three extended-range Scud missiles (ER-Scuds) and one new Scud-C with maneuverable reentry (the KN-18) landed in Japan’s EEZ.
True to form, U.S. President Donald J. Trump took to Twitter to condemn the test: “North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
The U.S. president did not clarify what precisely he meant by his suggestion that China carry out a “heavy move on North Korea.”