North Korea fires first suspected intercontinental ballistic missile in five years

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North Korea has test-fired a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time since 2017, South Korea and Japan said.

The projectile, fired on Thursday, landed in the sea 170km west of Japan’s northern prefecture of Aomori and inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, authorities said.

Japan’s vice defence minister Makoto Oniki said the projectile appeared to be a new model of an intercontinental ballistic missile, given it reached an altitude of more than 6,000km.

According to the South, the long-range missile was fired on a “lofted” trajectory high into space. South Korean president Moon Jae-in convened an emergency national security council meeting and accused the North of breaking a moratorium on launching intercontinental ballistic missiles.

This was the North’s first alleged full-capability launch of an ICBM in five years after Kim Jong-un threatened to resume such testing following stalled denuclearisation talks with the US in 2019.

This was also the North’s 12th major launch this year, amid rising concerns over its weapons arsenal. The country has test-fired an unprecedented number of missiles since the beginning of the year, drawing condemnation from its neighbours South Korea and Japan along with the United States.

“This launch is a brazen violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions and needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilising the security situation in the region,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

“The door has not closed on diplomacy, but Pyongyang must immediately cease its destabilising actions.”

On Sunday, the North fired suspected artillery pieces into the sea. It has conducted two medium-range tests from near its capital Pyongyang in recent weeks that the US and South Korean militaries later assessed as involving components of the North’s largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – Hwasong-1, which was first unveiled during a military parade in 2020.

“The purpose of these tests, which did not demonstrate ICBM range, was likely to evaluate this new system before conducting a test at full range in the future, potentially disguised as a space launch,” a US official was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Earlier on 16 March, North Korea launched a suspected missile that explode shortly after liftoff over the capital. Debris fell near Pyongyang after the test, according to Seoul-based NK News, which cited a photograph showing a ball of smoke and a plume that was the apparent launch trajectory of the rocket.

According to the US and South Korean militaries, the North is preparing to test the ICBM at full range soon. Some experts believe the launch could take place in April around the birthday of state founder Kim Il-sung, the late grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un.

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