North Korea’s latest ICBM launch ignites US and South Korea weekend military drills

North Korea’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch on Saturday has led to the West rallying around its regional partners and performing weekend military drills, apart from reviving chatter about a trilateral front.

The North confirmed its Saturday missile launch was of the Hwasong-15. The launch was “suddenly organised” without prior notice at the behest of Kim Jong-un and under an emergency firepower combat standby order, reported the state-owned KCNA news agency.

The North warned that the long-range missile test was meant to bolster its “fatal” nuclear attack capabilities while, in a demonstration of strength against the hermit kingdom, the US flew long-range supersonic bombers with South Korean warplanes on Sunday.

In the joint exercises, South Korea’s F-35A, F-15K and US F-16 fighter jets escorted American B-1B bombers that are capable of carrying a huge payload of weapons.

They demonstrated the allies’ “overwhelming” defence capabilities and readiness posture, said South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“[The exercise] strengthened the combined operation capability and affirmed the United States’ ironclad commitment to the defence of the Korean Peninsula and the implementation of extended deterrence,” South Korea’s military said in a statement.

The missile launch has also spurred talk of a new trilateral front, despite bickering between two of the regional allies involved.

While talk of strengthened cooperation with the US has been brought up before, the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan agreed to boost a trilateral front with the US on the sidelines of a security conference in Germany on Saturday.

The pledge occurred despite continued squabbling between South Korea and Japan because of the latter’s colonial-era mobilisation of forced Korean labourers.

Meanwhile, missile experts, including Ankit Panda from the Washington–based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pointed out that one of the key highlights of the launch was that it happened without prior warning to the crew involved.

“The amount of time between the order and the launch is likely going to be decreased with additional testing,” Mr Panda told Reuters.

The missile also appeared to be an upgraded version of Hwasong-15, according to Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University in South Korea, who said it may likely have a longer range than the standard weapon.

Japan’s defense minister Yasukazu Hamada said on Saturday that the missile seemed to have the potential to fly a range of 14,000km – enough to reach the continental US.

Japanese authorities also said that the missile flew about 900km before splashing down into the sea off Japan’s west coast.

It remains unknown if North Korea truly has a functioning nuclear-tipped ICBM.

The North’s launch also came a day after it warned there would be an “unprecedentedly” strong response over joint military drills planned between Seoul and Washington in the coming weeks.

As part of the annual exercise to counter the North’s missile threats, South Korea and the US had planned field exercises, including live fire drills in the following weeks.

In a separate statement, Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader’s influential sister, accused South Korea and the US of “openly showing their dangerous greed and attempt to gain the military upper hand and predominant position in the Korean Peninsula”.

“I warn that we will watch every movement of the enemy and take corresponding and very powerful and overwhelming counteraction against its every move hostile to us.”