TOKYO — The South Korean government wants greater firepower to counteract the growing threat from North Korea’s missiles, which have apparently led the new liberal government in Seoul to prioritize tougher action against Pyongyang over diplomatic engagement.
This represents a significant shift for Moon Jae-in, who was elected president just two months ago and will be welcomed in Washington, where the Trump administration has been growing frustrated with South Korea’s heel-dragging.
The catalyst for the sudden change was North Korea’s second launch in a month of an intercontinental ballistic missile technically capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
The Pentagon said that the missile, launched close to midnight North Korea time Friday, flew about 2,300 miles almost straight up before crashing into the sea off Japan about 620 miles from its launch site.
Fixed cameras for NHK, the Japanese public broadcaster, appeared to capture the missile crashing into the sea not far from the coast of Hokkaido, the northern Japanese island.
If the ICBM had been launched on a normal trajectory, the missile could theoretically have reached Chicago and perhaps even New York, experts said after analyzing the launch.
North Korean state television on Saturday broadcast footage of the launch, showing leader Kim Jong Un in a grassy area surrounded by trees in the middle of the night, as the missile was wheeled out on the back of a modified truck.
The Rodong Sinmun, the Workers’ Party newspaper, ran a large front-page photo of Kim signing the order to launch the missile that North Korea calls the Hwasong-14. It was just one of many photos showing the 33-year-old North Korean leader in the control room and at the launch site.
The launch confirmed several key technical advances, showing the power of the motors and the ability of the missile to survive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, the North Korean state news agency reported.
It also “demonstrated the capability of making surprise launch of ICBM in any region and place any time, and clearly proved that the whole U.S. mainland is in the firing range of the DPRK missiles,” the agency quoted Kim as saying.
“If the Yankees brandish the nuclear stick on this land again despite our repeated warnings, we will clearly teach them manners with the nuclear strategic force which we had shown them one by one,” Kim said, according to the report.
Within hours of the North Korean launch, South Korea showed off a more powerful ballistic missile of its own — although it still pales in comparison with the North’s ICBM — in drills with the U.S. military.
“Our combined efforts showcase the capabilities of this alliance,” Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal, the commander of the Eighth Army, said in a statement. The allies were ready to deter North Korean provocations and defend South Korea, he said.
The South’s Defense Ministry released footage of two missiles being fired from a launcher in quick succession, the first hitting a target and the second destroying a bunker. The system can launch four missiles back to back, giving the South the ability to carry out fast and lethal strikes, the ministry said.
“In particular, it can destroy not only North Korea’s nuclear and missile bases but also the tunnel-shaped strongholds of its artillery posing a threat to Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi province,” the ministry said in a statement, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
As part of a flurry of phone calls after the launch, South Korea’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, called his American counterpart, H.R. McMaster, to seek revisions to their countries’ bilateral ballistic missile guidelines.
Under an agreement written in 1979 but revised in 2001 and 2012, South Korea is limited in the capabilities it can pursue with its own missile program. The guidelines limit South Korean ballistic missiles with a range of 500 miles to carrying a half-ton payload, but the Moon administration is now seeking to double that to one ton.
“It is fair to say that more weight will be given to the payload part rather than the missile range issue,” the South Korean president’s chief press secretary told reporters Saturday in Seoul.
South Korean officials have been concerned about the growing “missile gap” between South and North Korea, but any increases are likely to alarm China in particular.
South Korea recently test-fired a new ballistic missile called the Hyunmoo-2 that has a range of 500 miles, enough to reach all of North Korea. The president watched the launch.
Earlier, Moon signaled a willingness to accept the planned deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Air Defense, or THAAD, system in South Korea.
The previous South Korean government had agreed to host the U.S. antimissile system, and the deployment was expedited as it became increasingly clear that Moon, who had vowed during the election campaign to review the process, was going to win.
The radar and launch system, along with two launchers, had been deployed and was operational before his election in May. But Moon professed outrage when he discovered that four additional launchers had been brought into South Korea after his election without his knowledge. American analysts said that a full battery comprised six launchers and that this had always been the agreement.
But after Friday night’s launch, Moon said that he was willing to discuss the “temporary” deployment of the four additional launchers.
The Trump administration has been frustrated by Moon’s unwillingness to join its efforts to crack down on North Korea.
Moon’s administration had declined to categorize North Korea’s July 4 launch as an intercontinental ballistic missile and has not signed on to U.S. sanctions against a bank in China accused of helping the North Korean regime skirt sanctions. Japan, the other ally of the United States in the region, had done both.