North Korea fired a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Saturday, Japan’s Defense Ministry said, with the weapon splashing down some 200 kilometers off Hokkaido’s Oshima Island, inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The missile, the first “ICBM-class” weapon to be fired by the North since November, traveled roughly 900 km, hitting a peak altitude of 5,700 km, the ministry said. With a flight time of 66 minutes, the missile was likely flown on a “lofted” trajectory, the ministry added, meaning it had been nearly shot straight up so as to avoid overflying neighboring countries.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan had protested the launch, calling it “an outrage” and escalation against “the international community as a whole.”
The Defense Ministry said the ICBM-class weapon was believed to have a range of over 14,000 km, depending on the weight of the warhead and other factors.
“In this case, that would put the entire United States within its range,” Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said.
In the city of Hakodate, Hokkaido, an NHK camera captured footage of what appeared to be a fireball falling from the sky at around the time the Defense Ministry estimated the missile to have splashed down. Observers have in the past filmed North Korean missiles appearing to break up or fall into the waters off Hokkaido.
The South Korean military also confirmed the launch of a “long-range” missile, the North’s first launch since the early morning hours of Jan. 1, which it said had been fired from the Sunan area of Pyongyang.
“The North’s long-range ballistic missile launch this time is an act of significant provocation that harms peace and stability not only on the Korean Peninsula but also in the international community,” the South Korean military said in a statement.
The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command also condemned the launch, saying it was “consulting closely” with Seoul and Tokyo, “as well as other regional allies and partners.”
The launch comes ahead of joint tabletop military drills between the U.S. and South Korea set for next week in Washington to hone their response to the potential use of nuclear weapons by North Korea.
The North, which views joint drills between the two allies as a rehearsal for invasion, on Friday vowed an “unprecedentedly” strong response to the exercises.
North Korea conducted a similar launch in November, sending its “monster” Hwasong-17 ICBM into the same waters off Hokkaido and into Japan’s EEZ, which extends 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its coast.
The latest launch was also similar in terms of the distance it traveled and altitude it reached, with the November weapon traveling about 1,000 km and hitting a height of 6,000 km. Hamada said at the time that his ministry had estimated the missile could have traveled around 15,000 km had it been fired on a standard trajectory.
Earlier this month, the North used a massive military parade to unveil an apparent mock-up of a new solid-fueled ICBMs that would allow for more stealthy launches. It was not immediately clear if Saturday’s launch was of this new missile, though experts have said that a test could be expected soon.
The bulk of North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile arsenal consists of weapons that use liquid fuel, which requires them to be fueled up at launch sites — a time-consuming process that leaves them open to pre-emptive strikes. Solid-fueled ICBMs, however, would not need to be fueled up, making them easier to deploy quickly and more difficult to spot and destroy.
“North Korean missile firings are often tests of technologies under development, and it will be notable if Pyongyang claims progress with a long-range solid-fuel missile,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “The Kim regime may also tout this launch as a response to U.S. defense cooperation with South Korea and sanctions diplomacy at the United Nations.”
Pyongyang is banned from using ballistic missile technology under a raft of U.N. sanctions.
Tensions over the North’s nuclear and missile programs soared in 2022 as it fired off a record number of weapons in the face of calls by the U.S. and its allies to return to denuclearization talks. Experts say this year could prove to be even more perilous, with signs already emerging that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un remains determined to follow through on a 2021 pledge to build even more advanced missiles and nuclear bombs.