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North Korea fires suspected ICBM with range to hit all of U.S.

Officials said the intercontinental ballistic missile, which would be the second launched by the North this month, landed in waters west of Japan.

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea fired a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile Friday, the South Korean and Japanese governments said, one that the Japanese defense minister said has the potential to reach the entire continental United States.

The launch would be North Korea’s second test this month of an ICBM, which are designed to deliver nuclear weapons. It came a day after the North vowed “fiercer” military responses to Washington’s enhanced regional security presence.

The White House quickly condemned the launch, saying it would “take all necessary measures” to guarantee the security of the U.S. and its allies South Korea and Japan. Vice President Kamala Harris, who is in Bangkok for a regional forum, said the launch was a “brazen violation” of United Nations Security Council resolutions and called on North Korea to “stop further unlawful, destabilizing acts.”

The United States and South Korea conducted joint air force drills on Friday in response to North Korea's launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The United States and South Korea conducted joint air force drills on Friday in response to North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.Courtesy South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff

The U.S. and South Korea responded to the launch by holding joint air force drills involving advanced F-35A fighter jets, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said. The U.S. and Japan also held a joint air force drill.

South Korea said the suspected ICBM was launched from the Soonan area in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, toward the country’s eastern waters around 10:15 a.m. (8:15 p.m. Thursday ET).

Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said an ICBM-class ballistic missile had landed in waters west of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. He said there were no reports of damage to vessels or planes in the area.

The missile is believed to have flown about 620 miles at a high trajectory and reached a maximum altitude of 3,728 miles, Hamada said. Depending on the weight of any warhead it carried, he said, the missile could have a range of more than 9,000 miles, “in which case all of the U.S. mainland would be included in its range.”

Both the South Korean and Japanese governments convened emergency meetings. They said they were closely monitoring the situation in coordination with the U.S., which has military bases in both countries.

“There is nothing that North Korea could gain through these continued provocations,” South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement. “The international sanctions against North Korea will only strengthen, and North Korea’s international isolation will only get worse.”

Although the launch is still being analyzed, it was most likely developmental as North Korea tries to improve its ICBMs, said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “has identified various modernization priorities for long-range missiles, and North Korea’s defense scientists have been hard at work for nearly two years now on realizing those goals,” he said in an email.

North Korea has been testing missiles at an unprecedented rate this year, saying they are a simulation of nuclear attacks on U.S. and South Korean targets.

In March, North Korea conducted its biggest-ever ICBM test, after refraining from them since 2017. Though North Korea claimed it had tested a Hwasong-17, its longest-range ICBM, U.S. and South Korean officials say it was more likely a smaller Hwasong-15.

The North tested another ICBM on Nov. 3, part of a series of missile launches in response to joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea that the North views as a rehearsal for invasion. The South Korean military said that test appeared to have failed.

The ICBM launched Friday could be a variant of the Hwasong-15 or -17, said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California.

“Either way, it could deliver a nuclear weapon anywhere in the U.S.,” he said in an email.

North Korea had been quiet for about a week until Thursday, when it launched a short-range ballistic missile toward its eastern waters. The launch appeared to be in protest of a trilateral summit in Cambodia on Sunday among President Joe Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who vowed a unified and coordinated response to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

In a statement carried by North Korean state media Thursday, Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said the summit would result in stronger military responses from the North and a “more unpredictable phase” in the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

U.S. and South Korean officials say the North is also preparing to conduct its seventh nuclear test, which would also be its first since 2017.

Stella Kim reported from Seoul, Arata Yamamoto from Tokyo and Jennifer Jett from Hong Kong.