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North Korean missile launches were a ‘serious escalation,’ official says

The launches earlier this year involved a ‘relatively new intercontinental ballistic missile system’ that the country is developing and testing, according to the senior U.S. official

In an undated photo provided by the North Korean government, leader Kim Jong Un visits an aerospace development facility. (AP)
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The Biden administration on Thursday accused North Korea of testing components for a large new intercontinental ballistic missile, in what one senior official described as a “serious escalation” of a weapons program that could threaten U.S. cities.

Two recent ballistic missile tests by North Korea — both conducted since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — were apparently intended to try out parts of the new missile system ahead of a full launch, which North Korea may try to disguise as a space launch for a reconnaissance satellite, U.S. officials said.

The tests appear linked to an 85-foot-long missile that North Korea has displayed in military parades but has not yet launched. Independent experts think North Korea is seeking to build and test a maneuverable warhead that could sit atop such a missile.

The tests on Feb. 26 and March 4 followed a flurry of missile trials in recent weeks that have raised fears that North Korea may soon abandon its self-imposed moratorium on provocative long-range missile tests. The activity was partly behind an announcement last week by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command that it was intensifying surveillance around the Korean Peninsula and increasing readiness of missile defense forces in the region.

“These launches are a brazen violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions, needlessly raise tensions and risk destabilizing the security situation in the region,” said the senior administration official who briefed reporters on Thursday.

Hotlines and missile tests: North Korea's mixed signals

North Korea in 2017 tested two different ICBMs that were judged capable of striking U.S. cities. The following year, after a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang announced a self-imposed moratorium on ICBM tests, although U.S. intelligence officials say North Korea continued building its nuclear stockpile and updating its designs for delivery systems.

The massive warhead unveiled at a Workers’ Party of Korea parade in October 2020 — dubbed the Hwasong-17 — was hailed by North Korean officials as the world’s largest mobile ICBM. Since its unveiling, independent analysts have been watching for signs that a test of the new weapon might be imminent.

While Kim often announces weapons milestones in advance, North Korea appears to have sought to play down its work on the new system, opting to test the missile components at a time when much of the world is focused on Russia and Ukraine. The Biden administration’s statement on Thursday appears partly intended to warn the North Koreans ahead of a possible launch.

“With the world’s attention focused on Ukraine, Kim Jong Un has signaled to the Biden administration that North Korea can’t be ignored,” said Robert Litwak, a nonproliferation expert and director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington think tank. Litwak described the recent tests as part of Kim’s “incremental and determined efforts to acquire the capability to threaten the U.S. homeland with a nuclear weapon.”

While the administration viewed the recent launches as a dangerous escalation, the missiles tested in recent weeks were not ICBMs. Experts estimated that the missile tested on March 4 had a maximum range of about 1,000 kilometers, less than one-fifth of the range of a true ICBM. The tests most likely involved “dual use” components that could be used either on a future satellite or an ICBM, said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. North Korea publicly announced last year that it was developing a system to deploy multiple warheads on an ICBM, Lewis said.

North Korea has not yet demonstrated mastery of key technologies needed to deliver a nuclear weapon over long distances, such as a maneuverable reentry vehicle that can safely transport several warheads through the punishing conditions of the upper atmosphere.

A full test of a new ICBM could spark a major international crisis, raising the specter of a military conflict and fresh economic sanctions against a North Korean government that has been struggling over the past year to cope with fuel and food shortages. The apparent attempt to disguise the new ICBM as a reconnaissance satellite “could mean they’re trying to keep the temperature down,” said Vann H. Van Diepen, a former top nonproliferation official at the State Department and a contributor to 38 North, a website devoted to North Korean analysis.

Biden administration officials have repeatedly said they are prepared to meet with the North Korean government without preconditions, and the president is also open to meeting directly with Kim once “there is a serious agreement on the table,” the senior administration official said.

North Korea has yet to respond to the U.S. overtures.

“As we saw in the past administration, leader-level summits alone are no guarantee of progress,” said the official, referring to the splashy meetings between Kim and Trump that did little to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. “The DPRK continues to not respond.”

10 years of Kim Jong Un

As part of the Biden administration’s response to the tests, the Treasury Department on Friday will announce a new effort that is meant to prevent North Korea from accessing “foreign items and technology that enable it to advance its prohibited weapons programs,” according to the official, who declined to elaborate.