NK missile launch images from Rodong Sinmun
North Korea claims missile can strike US
02:20 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

North Korea boasts its new missile puts the US within striking distance

The missile launch could raise tensions between Washington and Beijing

Washington CNN  — 

North Korea staged a brazen show of defiance against the Trump administration’s attempts to curb its nuclear ambitions, testing a missile Sunday that it said could reach US territory.

While the northeast Asian country is given to wild hyperbole, analysts said the launch is the country’s most successful to date and marks a significant step in its quest to build a nuclear-armed ballistic missile that could reach the continental US. They add that the development could raise tensions between Washington and Beijing – North Korea’s major protector – and shows just how hard it is to curtail Pyongyang.

The missile test came despite new South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s warm overtures to North Korea and as China was holding an international trade summit. Pyongyang also launched its missile amid continuing speculation that President Donald Trump may take military action to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.

“In a way, it’s an extended middle finger to Trump,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, “and to the newly elected Moon Jae-in and to China.” Klingner also noted the missile landed very near Russia and said that the display of disrespect might have been meant to include President Vladimir Putin as well.

“If it was a signal, it could have been directed at any of the neighbors,” Klingner said, noting that it represented “yet another violation of UN resolutions.”

The Trump administration has made North Korea a central focus in recent weeks, calling for new economic sanctions on Pyongyang, holding a special UN meeting about the threat it poses, and staging shows of military force in the region.

While experts say Pyongyang is still some time away from actually being able to strike the US mainland, the missile test – the seventh this year – was clearly meant to put Trump on notice. Pyongyang said the missile it launched could carry a nuclear warhead and warned that the US mainland is now within “sighting range for a strike.”

Trump’s April remark that “all options are on the table” with North Korea has raised tensions in the region and drawn rebukes from China and Russia. On April 27, Trump warned that “major conflict” was possible if diplomatic efforts failed.

The Washington-based North Korea monitoring project 38 North said Pyongyang’s Sunday launch could be seen as a direct response. “Given speculation over the past months about the possibility of military action by the Trump administration to prevent Pyongyang from acquiring such a weapons, the possible testing of ICBM subsystems in this low-key manner may be a North Korean hedge against the possibility of such action,” the group said in a report.

38 North said the test “represents a level of performance never before seen from a North Korean missile.” While the test showed technological advances, 38 North said that North Korea isn’t yet able to put US cities “at risk tomorrow, or any time this year.”

But Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said analysis shows that the missile could possibly reach US military bases in Guam.

North Korean state media reported that the missile, called a Hwasong-12, flew about 489 miles or 787 kilometers, soaring just over 1300 miles or 2100 kilometers high before falling into the East Sea, or Sea of Japan.

Cha noted in an analysis that the missile may have been “purposely launched at a steep angle and that the real range of the missile if shot at a normal angle could be upwards of 4,500 kilometers” – suggesting it could possibly reach Guam. “This latest missile launch demonstrates that we have once again underestimated North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities,” Cha wrote. 

Asked about the North Korean claim that it could strike the US, a State Department spokesman said the agency would “not comment on matters of intelligence” and added that “we call on the DPRK to refrain from provocative, destabilizing actions and rhetoric, and to make the strategic choice to fulfill its international obligations and commitments.”

In the last few weeks, Washington has responded to the North Korean threat by sending a Navy strike group to the Korean peninsula, staging long-planned military exercises with South Korea and Japan, and docking a powerful nuclear submarine in a South Korean port.

The Trump administration has also asked China, Pyongyang’s closest ally, to exercise its diplomatic and economic influence to force North Korea to change.

At the April 28 UN meeting on North Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “China, accounting for 90 percent of North Korean trade, China alone has economic leverage over Pyongyang that is unique, and its role is therefore particularly important.”

And Trump has publicly courted Chinese President Xi Jinping as an ally in the effort against Pyongyang, boasting of the good relationship the two have, even as his extended family has pursued business interests in China.

This latest North Korea test now increases the pressure on Trump to toughen the conciliatory course he’s taken with China over Pyongyang, said Klingner, a former deputy division chief for Korea at the CIA.

Since Trump’s early April summit meeting with Xi at his Mar-a-Lago estate, “he’s adopted a more effusive stance toward China, lauding them for doing more on North Korea than they ever have before,” Klingner said.

But Klingner noted that North Korea’s behavior hasn’t changed and China isn’t getting as tough on Pyongyang as it could. He suggested that it may be time to apply sanctions on the many Chinese businesses that work with the regime.

Trump “should end his restraint on imposing stronger sanctions on Pyongyang, as well as secondary sanctions on Chinese businesses. If Beijing doesn’t truly deliver it’s time to mark the expiration date on that deal,” Klingner said.

The test also demonstrates how hard it is to slow Pyongyang’s progress. To underscore that point, North Korea’s ambassador to China made clear on Monday that his country has no intention of stopping its work.

Pyongyang will continue to test missiles “at any time, at anywhere upon the decision of the supreme leadership,” Ambassador Ji Jae Ryong told a press conference at the North Korean embassy in Beijing.

And he blamed the US for this. “Just like our previous actions to strengthen our nuclear capabilities, our ICBM test was also in response to the nuclear dangers and threats posed by the US and its followers as they implement their policies,” Ji said. “It is a normal step in the process.”

K.J Kwon in Seoul, CNN’s Will Ripley in Tokyo, CNN’s David McKenzie in Beijing, and Taehoon Lee in Hong Kong contributed to this report.