North Korea returns to long-range launches with possibly its largest ICBM test

North Korea conducted what is thought to be its largest intercontinental ballistic missile test ever on Thursday, militaries in South Korea and Japan said, marking a dramatic end to a self-imposed moratorium on long-range testing.

Launch represents major step in North Korea's development of weapons

A man in Tokyo walks past a TV showing a news program on North Korea's missile launch on Thursday. North Korea has fired a suspected long-range missile toward the sea, in what would be its first such test since 2017. (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

North Korea conducted what is thought to be its largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test ever on Thursday, the South Korean and Japanese militaries said, marking a dramatic end to a self-imposed moratorium on long-range testing.

It would be the first full-capability launch of the nuclear-armed state's largest missiles since 2017, and represents a major step in the North's development of weapons that might be able to deliver nuclear warheads anywhere in the United States.

The North's return to major weapons tests also poses a new national security headache for U.S. President Joe Biden as he responds to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and presents a challenge to South Korea's incoming administration.

"This launch is a brazen violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions and needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilizing the security situation in the region," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement condemning the launch. "The door has not closed on diplomacy, but Pyongyang must immediately cease its destabilizing actions."

North Korea had put its ICBM and nuclear tests on hold since 2017, but has defended the weapons as necessary for self-defence, and said U.S. diplomatic overtures are insincere as long as Washington and its allies maintain "hostile policies" such as sanctions and military drills.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during a meeting of the National Security Council at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on Thursday. ( South Korea Presidential Blue House/Yonhap/The Associated Press)

South Korea's outgoing President Moon Jae-in, who made engaging North Korea a major goal of his administration, condemned the launch as "a breach of the moratorium on ICBM launches that Chairman Kim Jong-un himself promised to the international community."

An 'unacceptable act of violence'

It was also a serious threat to the Korean peninsula, the region and the international community, and a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions, added Moon, who is due to leave office in May.

The latest missile launch was an "unacceptable act of violence," Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said.

Thursday's ICBM launch prompted South Korea to test-fire a volley of its own, smaller ballistic and air-to-ground missiles to demonstrate it has the "capability and readiness" to precisely strike missile launch sites, command and support facilities, and other targets in North Korea if necessary, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

Thursday's launch would be at least the 11th North Korean missile test this year, an unprecedented frequency.


Japanese authorities said the launch appeared to be a "new type" of ICBM that flew for about 71 minutes to an altitude of about 6,000 kilometres and a range of 1,100 kilometres from its launch site.

It landed inside Japan's exclusive economic zone, 170 kilometres west of the northern prefecture of Aomori, at 3:44 p.m. local time, the coast guard said.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff put the missile's maximum altitude at 6,200 kilometres and its range at 1,080 kilometres.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, speaks to reporters in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday. Kishida told reporters that a North Korean missile possibly landed near Japanese territorial waters off the northern island of Hokkaido, calling the launch 'an unforgivable recklessness.' (Kyodo News/The Associated Press)

That is farther than North Korea's last ICBM test in 2017, when it launched a Hwasong-15 missile that flew for 53 minutes to an altitude of about 4,475 kilometres and range of 950 kilometres.

South Korea's JCS said the latest missile was launched from near Sunan, where Pyongyang's international airport is located. On March 16, North Korea launched a suspected missile from that airport that appeared to explode shortly after liftoff, South Korea's military said.

U.S. and South Korean officials have warned recently that North Korea had been preparing to test-fire its largest ICBM yet, the Hwasong-17.

This month, leader Kim said North Korea would soon launch multiple satellites to monitor military movements by the United States and its allies.

'Serious progress'

Amid a flurry of diplomacy in 2018, Kim declared a self-imposed moratorium on testing ICBMs and nuclear weapons, but suggested the North could resume such testing amid stalled denuclearization talks.

That moratorium had often been touted as a success by former U.S. president Donald Trump, who held historic summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019, but never gained a concrete pact to limit the North's nuclear or missile arsenals.

The looming prospect of possible nuclear tests, more joint U.S.-South Korea military drills, and the new conservative South Korean president mean "all conditions are present for a tit-for-tat chain reaction of escalatory steps," said Chad O'Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.

"Though Biden would prefer to focus exclusively on the Ukraine crisis, it's likely he will soon face crisis-level tensions between the Koreas," he said.