By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea said Tuesday that it had successfully conducted its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, claiming a milestone in its efforts to build nuclear weapons capable of hitting the mainland United States.
The announcement came hours after a launch that the U.S. military said had sent the missile aloft for 37 minutes. That duration, analysts said, suggested a significant improvement in the range of the North’s missiles, and it might allow one to travel as far as 4,000 miles and hit Alaska.
In an initial statement, the U.S. Pacific Command described the weapon as an intermediate-range missile rather than an intercontinental ballistic missile. But South Korean and Japanese officials said they were studying the data to determine if it was an ICBM.
The missile departed the Banghyon airfield in the northwestern town of Kusong and flew 578 miles before landing in the sea between North Korea and Japan, the South Korean military said in a statement.
The Japanese government said the missile landed in its so-called exclusive economic zone off its western coast. Under a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions, North Korea is prohibited from developing or testing ballistic missiles.
While the North has made significant progress in its weapons programs, experts believe it cannot make nuclear warheads small enough to be mounted on ICBMs. Still, U.S. policymakers have long seen just the development of an ICBM as a critical threshold the North should not be allowed to cross.
The missile test adds a volatile new element to the Trump administration’s efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, which have included naval drills off the Korean Peninsula and pressure on China, Pyongyang’s longtime ally. In a blunt phone call Sunday, President Donald Trump warned President Xi Jinping of China that the United States was prepared to act alone against North Korea.
If the missile took 37 minutes to fly 578 miles, that would mean that it had a highly lofted trajectory, probably reaching an altitude of more than 1,700 miles, said David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Such a missile would have a maximum range of roughly 4,160 miles, or 6,700 kilometers, on a standard trajectory, he said. North Korea said the missile, which it identified as the Hwasong-14, flew for 39 minutes.
“That range would not be enough to reach the lower 48 states or the large islands of Hawaii, but would allow it to reach all of Alaska,” Wright wrote in a blog post.
The missile looked like the longest-range missile that North Korea had ever tested, and its long flight time was “more consistent with an ICBM that can target Alaska and perhaps Hawaii,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“It’s a very big deal – it looks like North Korea tested an ICBM,” he said by email. “Even if this is a 7,000-km-range missile, a 10,000-km-range missile that can hit New York isn’t far off.”
But analysts also cautioned that although they have been impressed by the rapid and steady progress in the North’s missile programs, the long flight time itself did not suggest that North Korea had mastered the complex technologies needed to build a reliable nuclear-tipped ICBM, such as the know-how to separate the nuclear warhead and guide it to its target.
Before the announcement, Trump had noted the missile launch on Twitter, suggesting that it was time for China to act decisively against the North and “end this nonsense once and for all.” On Tuesday, Chinese officials criticized the missile test, saying it violated U.N. rules.
But at the same time, the Chinese government offered no signs that it was preparing to take more drastic action against the North, urging a return to diplomatic talks instead.
“I have to reiterate that the current situation in the Korean Peninsula is complicated and sensitive,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a regular news conference in Beijing. “We hope all sides concerned can remain calm and restrained so that tensions can be eased as soon as possible.”
Later in Moscow, where Xi was visiting, President Vladimir Putin of Russia said both had agreed to advance a joint proposal to settle the Korea crisis by simultaneously freezing the North’s nuclear and missile programs and the joint military drills by the U.S. and South Korea. In remarks broadcast on Russian television, Putin called a solution proposed with China “a joint foreign-policy priority.”
Russia, which like China borders North Korea, has repeatedly called for a diplomatic solution. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that the launch would give “more arguments to those who seek pretexts for new escalation of tensions,” according to the Interfax news agency.
Trump is to meet this week with both Putin and Xi at the Group of 20 meeting in Germany, and Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said the missile test would force them to find some kind of common ground on North Korea. He did not specify what that might be, but he suggested that it would now be more difficult for Xi to stand by Pyongyang.
“Certainly the test will change the game,” Cheng said. “The business-as-usual situation is over.”
Other analysts said the launch would put Trump’s administration in a precarious position, given that it had indicated that such a missile, capable of reaching parts of the U.S., was a critical threshold. In January, Trump declared on Twitter “it won’t happen!”; the message set off a cascade of speculation on what exactly he meant.
“The important thing is that Donald Trump doesn’t let himself be backed into a corner and that he understands that there are long-term options to contain, constrain and deter the regime,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.