What we know about the North Korean missile launch

Credit…Kim Won-Jin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

SEOUL — Although North Korea has conducted four intercontinental ballistic missile tests like the one on Thursday, the country has never launched a missile on a trajectory that could potentially hit another continent.

Its ICBMs soared extremely high, reaching a maximum altitude of 3,852 miles, but they all fell in the waters west of Japan.

The launches at these angles were intended to prevent the missiles from flying over Japan, an act that would be seen as extremely provocative by the United States and its allies. But they left open one of the biggest mysteries of the North Korean program: can its missiles actually fly across an ocean and hit an intercontinental target?

“It’s clear that North Korean missiles are powerful enough to cover an ICBM range,” said Lee Byong-chul, a nuclear proliferation expert at the University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies. Kyungnam in Seoul.

“But an unanswered question is whether the country has mastered so-called re-entry technologies, which you need to protect the nuclear warhead from intense heat and friction when the ICBM crashes into Earth’s atmosphere. .”

It was still unclear if Thursday’s launch demonstrated significant progress with reentry technologies or even if it had anything to do with testing a multiple independent reentry vehicle, or MIRV.

To become the bona fide nuclear power that North Korea claims, the country must also make its ICBMs smaller and lighter so they can carry larger and more powerful payloads with the same amount of fuel.

North Korea’s newest ICBM – the Hwasong-17 – was the largest mobile ICBM the world had seen when it was first unveiled at a military parade in October 2020. The Hwasong-17 is designed as a MIRV missile that carries multiple nuclear warheads, say missile experts.

North Korea has carried out six nuclear tests, but all of them took place in underground tunnels. Ri Yong-ho, then North Korea’s foreign minister, warned in 2017 that the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was planning to test “a hydrogen bomb on an unprecedented scale” over the Pacific in response to then-President Donald J. Trump’s threat “totally destroyed” his country.

An atmospheric nuclear test would be the first such test in the world since China detonated a device in 1980. Professor Lee doubted North Korea would go so far as to attempt such a bold provocation. But one of the country’s logical next steps could be to launch a dummy ICBM over the Pacific Ocean to demonstrate that its missile can travel intercontinental range.

“That in itself will be an extremely provocative maneuver, one that the North would only attempt when it was sure of its technologies,” Professor Lee said.

When tensions rose over Mr Trump’s threat to rain ‘fire and fury’ on North Korea in 2017, he warned he would fire four ballistic missiles in a ‘ring of fire’ around Guam, home to major US military bases in the Western Pacific.

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