Destabilizing speculation

US claims North Korea is testing new ICBM system

Two recent missile tests by North Korea involved a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, the Pentagon announced on Thursday, marking what a US official called a “serious escalation” that will be met with new sanctions. .

North Korea says February 26 and March 4 tests focused on development of reconnaissance satellite, but Pentagon says rigorous analysis concluded they were in fact experimental precursors of a likely full-range ICBM launch.

Such a launch would mark the end of a self-imposed moratorium Pyongyang had in place since 2017 and would escalate military tensions on the Korean peninsula and beyond.

The North conducted three ICBM tests; the last in November 2017 of a Hwasong-15 – deemed powerful enough to reach Washington and the rest of the continental United States.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the two recent tests “involved a new intercontinental ballistic missile system” that Pyongyang first displayed at a military parade in October 2020.

Although neither launch displayed the range or ICBM capability, they were clearly intended “to evaluate this new system before performing a full-range test in the future, potentially disguised as a space launch,” Kirby said. .

Prior to its ICBM tests in 2017, the North had carried out a series of powerful rocket launches that it said were part of a larger civilian space program.

The launches were carried out from the Sohae Satellite Launch Station on the northwest coast, and North Korea’s official KCNA news agency reported on Friday that leader Kim Jong Un visited the facility and ordered that it be expanded and modernized – a move that will only fuel speculation of an imminent, disguised ICBM test.

North Korea is already under severe international sanctions for its missile and nuclear weapons program.

But a senior US official said the latest tests were a “serious escalation” and that the Treasury would announce new measures on Friday to help prevent Pyongyang from accessing “foreign items and technology” to advance that agenda.

Such moves underscore that “illegal and destabilizing activities by the North have consequences” and that diplomatic negotiations are the only viable path for Pyongyang, the official said on condition of anonymity.

Kirby said Washington “remains committed to a diplomatic approach” but “will take all necessary steps to ensure the security of the United States and our allies.”

In Tokyo, the Defense Ministry said it had reached the same conclusion as Washington, adding that the February launch had an altitude of up to 600 km (370 miles) and traveled around 300 km, while the March launch had an altitude of up to 550 km and also traveled about 300 km.

He called the tests “a threat to peace and security… which can never be tolerated”.

When the new ICBM was unveiled at the 2020 parade, military analysts said it appeared to be the world’s largest mobile liquid-fueled road missile – and likely designed to carry multiple warheads in independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). ) .

North Korea watchers routinely warn that the devices Pyongyang displays in its parades may be mock-ups or models, and there’s no proof they work until they’ve been tested.

Pyongyang has abided by its moratorium on ICBM and nuclear weapons testing since Kim embarked on a flurry of high-level diplomatic engagements with then-US President Donald Trump in 2017.

The talks then fell apart and diplomacy has languished ever since, despite efforts by US President Joe Biden’s administration to propose new negotiations.

The North began hinting in January that it might lift the moratorium, and it has conducted nine weapons tests this year, including banned hypersonic and medium-range ballistic missiles.

Pyongyang has also carried out several rocket launches that have been condemned by the United States and others as disguised tests of long-range ballistic missiles.

A new ICBM launch would be an early challenge for South Korea’s new president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who has pledged to take a tough line in the face of provocations from the North.

Yoon has not ruled out the possibility of dialogue with Pyongyang, but analysts say his hawkish stance puts him on a completely different footing and drastically reduces the prospect of substantial engagement.

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