SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday claimed his regime’s missile launch showed it can strike the US with a nuclear weapon, signaling a new phase in its standoff with President Trump.
North Korea “successfully” launched a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile with improved technology that can deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere in the US — including Boston — the state-run Korean Central News Agency said Wednesday. Kim watched the test and “declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force,” KCNA said.
Kim’s claims on his nuclear capabilities, yet to be verified independently, suggests that he could look to enter into talks with the US from a position of strength. Trump has threatened to use military force to stop his nuclear program, which Kim says he needs to deter an American invasion.
Trump struck a more measured tone after the launch compared with previous threats to unleash “fire and fury,” telling reporters that “we will take care of that situation.” The United Nations Security Council, which has imposed stringent sanctions on North Korea this year, plans to discuss the latest test on Wednesday in New York.
“North Korea is saying the US should acknowledge it as a nuclear state and shift its policy to dialogue,” said Koh Yu-hwan, who teaches North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “Pyongyang’s following the Chinese model: obtain nuclear weapons and suggest co-existence to the US.”
No major power has said it will recognize North Korea as a nuclear state. China and Russia, two countries that Trump has singled out for supporting North Korea, have backed stricter UN sanctions against Kim while also saying they prefer dialogue and oppose regime change.
China opposed Wednesday’s test and will continue to strictly uphold UN sanctions, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular briefing. He reiterated support for a proposal made with Russia, under which North Korea refrains from missile and nuclear tests, and the US and South Korea halt large-scale military exercises.
Experts differ on when North Korea will pose a credible threat to the US, with estimates ranging from months to years. While Kim’s regime has made steady progress, the US and South Korea assess that its ballistic missiles still can’t survive the stress involved with re-entering the atmosphere or target specific locations. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Wednesday that Japan was analyzing whether North Korea had that capability.
Japan said the ICBM on Wednesday flew for 53 minutes on a lofted trajectory and may have reached an altitude of more than 2,500 miles before landing in waters about 155 miles from its northwest coast. US Defense Secretary James Mattis said that it flew higher than any previous North Korean launch.
South Korea’s military said it staged its own missile exercise within minutes of the launch, which Mattis said “made certain that North Korea understands they could be taken under fire by our ally.” Trump spoke by phone separately with both Abe and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in.
South Korea’s Moon called for dialogue, warning that matters could become “uncontrollable” if North Korea obtains a fully functional ICBM. “We should prevent a situation where North Korea threatens us with its nuclear arsenal based on misjudgment, or the US considers a preemptive strike,” he said during a National Security Council meeting.
North Korea has threatened in recent months to take even more provocative actions, such as testing a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean or firing missiles over Japan near the US territory of Guam. Launches of ballistic missiles from submarines or an ICBM on a flatter trajectory would show technical improvements.
Investors shrugged off the missile strike after an initial reaction. The yen fell as much as 0.5 percent before paring losses.
The Pentagon said the missile fired Wednesday traveled about 625 miles before splashing down in the Sea of Japan. Experts said the altitude and distance would give it more than enough range to reach any part of the continental US if flown on a standard trajectory.
Kim said the launch was conducted at a high launch angle to prevent adverse effects on the security of other nations. He claimed the missile could carry a “super-large heavy warhead which is capable of striking the whole mainland of the US” -- a claim that experts questioned.
“We do not know how heavy a payload this missile carried, but given the increase in range it seems likely that it carried a very light mock warhead,” David Wright, the co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Global Security Program, wrote on his All Things Nuclear blog. “If true, that means it would be incapable of carrying a nuclear warhead to this long distance, since such a warhead would be much heavier.”
The Trump administration has recently sent mixed signals to North Korea. On a trip to Asia earlier this month, Trump called on North Korea to “come to the table” to make a deal to end its nuclear program, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he could envision talks with Kim’s regime as a precursor to formal negotiations.
Then on Nov. 20, Trump labeled North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism because of threats of nuclear devastation and support of terrorist acts including assassinations on foreign soil. North Korea called that step a reminder that it should keep hold of its "precious nuclear sword.”
Tillerson said after Wednesday’s missile launch that “diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now.”