SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Thursday conducted its first intercontinental ballistic missile launch in a month, possibly testing a new type of more mobile, harder-to-detect weapons system, its neighbors said, in an extension of the North’s provocative run of missile tests.
The launch prompted Japan to issue an evacuation order on a northern island, and though it was later retracted, it shows the vigilance of North Korea’s neighbors over its evolving missile threats.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staffs said the missile launched on a high angle from near the North Korean capital of Pyongyang fell in the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan following a 1,000 kilometer (620 miles) flight.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff described the missile as having a medium or longer range. The U.S. National Security Council called it a long-range missile and Japan’s defense minister an ICBM-class weapon.
South Korea’s military believes North Korea launched a new type of ballistic missile, possibly using solid fuel, a defense official said, requesting anonymity because of office rules.
If the launch involved a solid-fuel ICBM, it would be the North’s first test of such a weapon. Liquid fuel must be injected before the weapon is launched, but it’s harder to detect launches of solid-propellant weapons in advance because the fuel is already loaded inside. North Korea’s previous ICBM tests all involved liquid-fueled weapons.
A solid-propellant ICBM is one of the key high-tech weapons that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to build to better cope with what he calls U.S. military threats. Other weapons he wants to acquire are a multiwarhead missile, a nuclear-powered submarine, a hypersonic missile and a spy satellite.
U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the latest launch “needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilizing the security situation in the region.” Watson said the United States will take all necessary measures to ensure the security of the American homeland and South Korean and Japanese allies.
During an emergency National Security Council meeting in South Korea, officials condemned the launch and stressed the need to tighten three-way security cooperation with Washington and Tokyo. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters in Tokyo that he planned a Japanese NSC meeting to discuss the launch.
The top nuclear envoys of Seoul, Washington and Tokyo also held a telephone conversation where they called for a “decisive and united international response” to North Korean provocations and stronger efforts to stem illicit North Korean activities that allegedly fund its weapons program.
North Korea commonly test-launches missiles toward the international waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. All its past ICBM launches were made in the area, but on elevated trajectories to avoid neighboring countries. South Korea and Japan typically don’t issue evacuation orders for North Korean launches unless they determine weapons flew in the direction of their territories.
Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada told reporters the North Korean missile launched Thursday did not reach Japan’s exclusive economic zone. But the Japanese government still urged people on the northernmost island of Hokkaido to seek shelter. The government then corrected and retracted its missile alert, saying its analysis showed there was no possibility of a missile landing near Hokkaido.
It was unclear why Japan issued the order, but the incident suggested it was being cautious about North Korea’s evolving missile threats. Asked over the accuracy of Japan’s information dissemination about future North Korean launches, Kishida, the prime minister, said the government is checking related information including alerts.
Last October, Japanese authorities issued a similar evacuation order when a North Korean intermediate-range missile flew over Japan in a launch that demonstrated the potential to reach the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam. At the time, Japanese authorities alerted residents in its northeastern regions to seek shelter and halted trains, but no damages were reported before the weapon landed in the Pacific.
Thursday’s launch came days after Kim Jong Un reviewed his country’s attack plans and vowed to enhance his nuclear arsenal in more “practical and offensive” ways during a military meeting.
North Korea has launched a total of about 100 missiles this year and in 2022, many of them nuclear-capable weapons that place the U.S. mainland, South Korea and Japan within striking distance.
The North’s testing spree is largely in protest of South Korean-U.S. military drills that it views as a rehearsal for an invasion. Some observers say North Korea uses its rivals’ drills as a pretext to modernize its weapons arsenal and pressure Washington and Seoul to make concessions such as the lifting of economic sanctions. South Korean and U.S. officials say their drills are defensive in nature and were arranged to respond to North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threats.
There are concerns that North Korea could conduct its first nuclear test in more than five years since it unveiled a new type of nuclear warhead earlier this month. Foreign experts debate whether North Korea has developed warheads small and light enough to fit on its more advanced missiles.
South Korean officials say North Korea has not been responding to South Korean calls on a set of cross-border inter-Korean hotlines for about a week. The North’s alleged suspension of communications on those channels could be worrisome because they are meant to prevent accidental clashes along the rivals’ disputed western sea boundary. On Tuesday, South Korean Unification Minister Kwon Youngse, expressed “strong regret” over what he called North Korea’s “unilateral and irresponsible attitude” over the hotlines.
North Korea’s advancing nuclear arsenal is expected to be a major topic during a summit between South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden later this month in Washington. Yoon’s government has been seeking stronger U.S. assurances that it will surely and swiftly use all its military capabilities, including nuclear, to protect South Korea in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack.
Experts say the discussions between world leaders at next month’s Group of Seven meetings in Japan could also be crucial for maintaining diplomatic pressure on North Korea given the dysfunction at the U.N. Security Council. Permanent members China and Russia have blocked tighter sanctions on North Korea in recent months, underscoring a divide deepened by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.