North Korea on Thursday launched a long-range missile at its highest peak yet, marking a full return to its dark days of saber-rattling and a crucial step in its mission to perfect the nuclear weapons program that has made it a banned state.
The missile, which analysts say can reach the entire United States, poses another foreign policy challenge for President Joe Biden, who is already facing crises on several fronts, including Russia’s war on Ukraine and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program .
The launch, the 12th this year, is the first ICBM launch to show long range since North Korea test-launched two ICBMs in 2017, sending this new missile airborne on an elevated trajectory over 3,700 miles.
The US condemned the launch “in the strongest terms” as “a brazen violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions that creates needless tension and destabilizes the security environment in the region,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.
But with Biden in Europe to rally allies against Russia, the world appears largely distracted while North Korea continues to make advances in its ballistic missile technology.
“Right now, the US will be completely distracted. The Biden administration has really not lifted a finger to begin negotiations with North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program,” said retired Marine Col. Steve Ganyard, an ABC News contributor and former State Department and Pentagon official.
Repeated attempts by the Biden administration to start negotiations with Pyongyang have been met with silence. Last fall, North Korea’s strong leader Kim Jong Un said that US foreign work was “nothing more than a facade to hide its deception and hostile actions,” and instead turned inward while North Korea faced a slew of sanctions and COVID-19 -19-Restrictions have to fight a paralyzed economy.
But rather than alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people, Kim’s regime continues to invest funds and energy in an expanding nuclear weapons program, which it sees as a guarantee of its security. This year alone, North Korea has now tested 12 missile tests – a record for the most in a month in January – but Thursday was perhaps the most significant yet.
“It’s a massive missile… [that]if the kilometer data holds true, can reach any point in the United States,” said Ganyard.
According to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, the missile launched from North Korea’s west coast, heading east and high. It flew for approximately 71 minutes and landed in the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone, which Tokyo views as a direct threat. It flew an estimated 684 miles to a maximum altitude of 3,728 miles — that was the highest peak for a North Korean launch to date.
This high launch is intended to keep the missile from flying directly over an adversary like Japan, or even an ally like Russia given the risk involved.
Analysts are still probing the launch and determining what type of missile it was, but it could be the same one North Korea paraded with much fanfare in October 2020.
Either way, “You can interpolate that [data] and to accurately predict that this missile can reach the entire landmass of the continental United States,” said Ret. Gen. Robert Abrams, an ABC News military contributor and former commander of US Forces Korea.
“I would say now that there is no doubt,” Abrams added, that North Korea could strike anywhere in the US
Still, key questions remain about that capability, including whether the missile has the ability to integrate a nuclear warhead that can survive and accurately hit reentry, Abrams said.
But he added: “It’s certainly within their reach, I would say.”
This marks a new step in Pyongyang’s quest to perfect its nuclear missile program. But the White House seemed to downplay the importance, pointing to two more ICBM tests earlier this year and so far declining to call it an ICBM like South Korea and Japan have done.
On February 26 and March 4, North Korea conducted ballistic missile tests that the US later concluded were a new ICBM system – the same one believed to have been used in Thursday’s test.
But those launches didn’t show the same long range the missile is capable of, “probably this new system will be evaluated before a full-range test is conducted in the future,” the Pentagon said at the time.
That future may have arrived on Thursday.
Aside from statements of condemnation from the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, it’s unclear what the Biden administration will — or even can — do about it.
North Korea is already under heavy US and UN sanctions, although some analysts argue more could be done. North Korea’s allies China and Russia are all but guaranteed to block further action in the UN Security Council. And Pyongyang continues to refuse diplomacy.
“Are we fundamentally okay with North Korea having a nuclear-capable ICBM that can reach any US city, or not?” Abrams said.