After North Korea provoked both its neighbors and the US when on Sunday morning it fired off yet another ballistic missile from Kusong near the border with China - one which this time did not explode upon launch - just days after the election of a new South Korean president who ironically advocates more engagement with Pyongyang, experts said the missile appeared to be a new type of ballistic missile, and had a far greater range than any other weapon North Korea has successfully launched.
According to Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, the missile rose to a height of about 2,000 kilometers, a much steeper trajectory than usual for a North Korean missile test. She also confirmed that officials were looking into the possibility that it was a "new type of ballistic missile." Japan's cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said the missile traveled for about 30 minutes and landed 700 kilometers east of the launch site. A spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated the distance at 435 miles.
Cited by the WSJ, independent experts said the missile, if fired at a conventional angle, could have flown 2,800 miles—far enough to reach the U.S. military base in Guam.
That is a “considerably longer range than its current missiles,” said David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an analysis of the launch.
As the Journal adds, while North Korea’s Taepodong-2 rocket has flown farther than Sunday’s missile, North Korea classifies it as a satellite launcher that isn’t designed to deliver a warhead back to earth. It is, however, banned by United Nations sanctions because similar technology could be used to make an intercontinental ballistic missile.
North Korea’s previous most recent launch from Kusong took place in February, during a summit meeting between Mr. Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The February launch also featured a new type of missile for North Korea, one that uses a solid fuel-powered engine. The test involved an intermediate-range ballistic missile that was modified from a missile that North Korea launched from a submarine last year. It was later paraded through the streets of Pyongyang in April for a national holiday.
The missile that North Korea fired Sunday flew further than the previous one launched from Kusong, and its high trajectory—which missile experts said appeared to be a record for the isolated nation—seemed designed to ensure that it didn’t land in Japan’s territory
Whatever the missile's model, however, the response among the international community was prompt. Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s newly elected president, convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council hours after Sunday’s launch, according to a spokesman for the presidential Blue House in Seoul.
During the meeting, Mr. Moon condemned the missile launch as “a grave violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions” and expressed frustration at the North for testing a missile just days after Mr. Moon had said in his inaugural address that he would do whatever it takes to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula, according to the spokesman.
Mr. Moon called North Korea’s missile test a “reckless provocation” and promised a decisive response, although he also kept open the possibility of dialogue, calling for “a change in attitude” by Pyongyang, the spokesman said.
Cited by the WSJ, Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said it was common for North Korea to test a new leader in South Korea, adding that it gave Mr. Moon a chance to burnish his national-security credentials and commitment to Seoul’s traditional alliance with Washington. “Pyongyang gave an opportunity for Seoul and Washington to publicly affirm their alliance,” said Mr. Lee. “For Moon, by declaring today that there won’t be any ‘unconditional dialogue’ with North Korea, he brushed aside some skepticism that he may be ‘soft’ on North Korea.”
A spokesman for the Blue House in Seoul said Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the White House’s national-security adviser, had a 25-minute phone call with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, after the missile test. Both sides condemned the launch and reaffirmed their commitment to working toward a denuclearized North Korea.
As we noted last night, the launch also came just as China's President Xi convened a gathering of world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Beijing to kick off a high-profile "One Belt One Road" infrastructure plan that reflects China’s ambitions for influence across Central Asia and into Europe. China’s Foreign Ministry on Sunday noted Security Council resolutions that limit North Korea’s ballistic-missile launches and urged all parties to “exercise restraint and do nothing to further worsen regional tensions.”
Meanwhile in the US, the White House said Mr. Trump had been briefed on the launch. The official statement contained an odd reference to Russia, which in recent weeks the media has suggested could be using its relationship with North Korea as leverage for diplomatic purposes.
“With the missile impacting so close to Russian soil—in fact, closer to Russia than Japan—the President cannot imagine that Russia is pleased,” the White House said in a statement.
US calls for "far stronger sanctions"against N. Korea after missile test. US & S.Korea consider it a"provocation".China calls for"restraint" pic.twitter.com/NOTwoaz2wK— Bricio Segovia (@briciosegovia) May 14, 2017
Russia, however, did not express nearly as much concern about the latest launch. The Russian Defense Ministry said that Russian missile defense systems tracked the missile test, adding that it landed some 500 kilometers from Russia and hadn’t posed a threat. It also said that Russia’s ballistic missile launch early warning system detected the launch form North Korea at about 08:30 GMT on Saturday, the ministry said.
“The ballistic target had been tracked in flight by the SPRN for 23 minutes before it fell into the central part of the Sea of Japan, some 500 km from the territory of Russia,” the ministry statement said. It added the missile’s trajectory had been away from Russia at a considerable distance from its border.
“The missile launch didn’t pose any threat to the Russian Federation. Russian early warning radar and air defense forces are on regular duty now,” the ministry said.
In a separate comment posted on Russia's Interfax wire service, Maj. Gen. Vladimir Bogatyryov, a military expert who worked in the Defense Ministry's central apparatus, said the missile launches carried out by North Korea are testament primarily to its desire to ensure its own national security in the face of the military threat emanating from the United States and its partners in the region. "Today's missile launch carried out by North Korea is yet another attestation of the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] trying in every possible way to exercise its right to defend its national interests," Bogatyryov told Interfax-AVN on Sunday.
In an unexpected pivot, the Russian then added that "it is time for Washington and its allies, and the global community to look at the problem of security on the Korean peninsula from a different perspective, by taking into account not only their own interests, but Pyongyang's concerns as well, the expert said.
"Constant threats to solve the problem militarily, encroachments on the DPRK's sovereignty, the large-scale joint drills held by the U.S. with Japan and South Korea near North Korea's border, are forcing Pyongyang to keep its gunpowder dry, by maintaining combat readiness at the highest level, including by regularly 'snarling' missile launches," Bogatyryov said.
He sees it as no security threat to Russia.
Which begs the question: is the apparent softening of Russia's position toward North Korea, an attempt to gain leverage with the Kim regime, and if so what does the Kremlin gain from it, especially since even Beijing had voiced a vocal condemnation of Pyongyang recent provocations and followed through with coal import and oil sanctions. While still a low probability, the potential emergence of a Russia-NKorea axis could lead to a potential complication for US plans to deter the Kim regime by all means possible, including a potential "decapitation" strike as has been proposed in recent weeks.