North Korea fires missile near Japan which could show ‘nuclear capability’ - what have US and the UN said?

The missile launch comes as China and Russia have opposed US moves to toughen sanctions aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear programme.

North Korea has fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) into Japanese waters, which could show the potential to launch nuclear strikes on all of the US mainland.

It is the second major weapons test this month by Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship. The United States quickly condemned the launch and vowed to take “all necessary measures” to guarantee the safety of its mainland and allies South Korea and Japan.

North Korea’s ongoing torrid run of weapons tests aims to advance its nuclear arsenal and win greater concessions in eventual diplomacy. The missile launches come as China and Russia have opposed US moves to toughen sanctions aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear programme.

What happened?

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said it detected the ICBM launch from North Korea’s capital region around 10.15am and the weapon flew toward the North’s eastern coast across the country. Japan said the ICBM appeared to have flown on a high trajectory and landed west of Hokkaido.

According to South Korean and Japanese estimates, the North Korean missile flew about 3,600-3,790 miles at a maximum altitude of 620 miles. Japanese defence minister Yasukazu Hamada told reporters the altitude suggests the missile was launched on a high angle.

He said depending on the weight of a warhead to be placed on the missile, the weapon has a range exceeding 9,320 miles, “in which case it could cover the entire mainland United States”.

People sit near a television showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea. Credit: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

What has the USA and the UN said?

Vice president Kamala Harris will separately meet with leaders of allies, who are attending a regional forum in Bangkok, to discuss the recent ballistic missile launch. “We strongly condemn these actions and we again call for North Korea to stop further unlawful, destabilising acts. On behalf of the United States, I reaffirm our ironclad commitment to our Indo-Pacific alliances,” Harris said at the start of the meeting.

“Together the countries represented here will continue to urge North Korea to commit to serious and sustained diplomacy.”

US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said the launch “needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilising” regional security while showing the North’s prioritising of unlawful weapons programmes over the well-being of its people.

She said President Joe Biden was briefed. “Pyongyang must immediately cease its destabilising actions and instead choose diplomatic engagement,” Watson said.

Hamada, the Japanese defence minister, called the launch “a reckless act that threatens Japan as well as the region and the international community”. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff called the launch “a grave provocation and serious threat” to undermine international and regional peace and security.

Vice President Kamala Harris at the conference in Bangkok. Credit: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

What is an intercontinental ballistic missile?

An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is a missile with a range greater than 3,400 miles, which is primarily designed for nuclear weapons. Conventional, chemical, and biological weapons can also be fired with varying effectiveness, but have never been deployed on ICBMs.

North Korea also launched an ICBM on 3 November 3, but experts said that weapon failed to complete its intended flight and fell into the ocean after a stage separation. That test was believed to have involved a developmental ICBM called Hwasong-17.

North Korea has two other types of ICBM — Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 — and their test-launches in 2017 proved they could potentially reach parts of the US homeland. The Hwasong-17 has a longer potential range than the others and its huge size suggests it is designed to carry multiple nuclear warheads to defeat missile defence systems.

Some experts say the November 3 test showed some technological progress in the development of the Hwasong-17, given that in its earlier test in March the missile exploded soon after liftoff. It was not immediately known if North Korea launched a Hwasong-17 missile again on Friday or something else.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. Credit: MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea missile tests

In recent months, North Korea has performed dozens of shorter-range missile tests as simulations of nuclear attacks on South Korean and US targets. But it had halted weapons launches for about a week before it fired a short-range ballistic missile on Thursday.

Before Thursday’s launch, the North’s foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, threatened to launch “fiercer” military responses to the US bolstering its security commitment to its allies South Korea and Japan. Choe was referring to Biden’s recent trilateral summit with Mr Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the sidelines of a regional gathering in Cambodia.

In their joint statement, the three leaders strongly condemned North Korea’s recent missile tests and agreed to work together to strengthen deterrence. Biden reaffirmed the US commitment to defend South Korea and Japan with a full range of capabilities, including its nuclear arms. Choe did not say what steps North Korea could take but said that “the US will be well aware that it is gambling, for which it will certainly regret”.

Pyongyang sees the US military presence in the region as proof of its hostility toward North Korea. It said its recent series of weapons launches were its response to what it called provocative military drills between the United States and South Korea. There have been concerns North Korea might conduct its first nuclear test in five years as its next major step toward bolstering its military capability against the US and its allies.

North Korea has been under multiple rounds of United Nations sanctions over its previous nuclear and missile tests. No fresh sanctions have been applied this year, though it has conducted dozens of ballistic missile launches, which are banned by UN Security Council resolutions. That is possible because China and Russia, two of the UN council’s veto-wielding members, oppose new UN sanctions. Washington is locked in a strategic competition with Beijing and a confrontation with Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.