By KATIE WESTON and STEPHEN WYNN-DAVIES
Updated: March 25, 2022
North Korea has released video and pictures of what it says is a test-fire of its biggest-yet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) under the orders of Kim Jong Un, who appeared to be channeling Tom Cruise in his aviator sunglasses and a leather jacket.
The leader vowed to expand the North’s ‘nuclear war deterrent’ while preparing for a ‘long-standing confrontation’ with the United States.
Video and pictures showed Kim clad in a leather jacket and wearing aviator sunglasses smiling and clapping as he celebrated with military officials from an observation deck during the test launch operation of the Hwasong-17, which was fired at a high angle to avoid the territorial waters of neighbours.
The Korean Central News Agency also published photos of the missile leaving a trail of orange flames as it soared from a launcher truck on the airport’s runway.
The report by North Korean state media came a day after the militaries of South Korea and Japan said they detected the North launching an ICBM from an airport near capital Pyongyang in its first long-range test since 2017.
The launch extended a barrage of weapons demonstrations this year that analysts say are aimed at forcing the US to accept the idea of North Korea as a nuclear power and remove crippling sanctions against its broken economy that has been further damaged by pandemic-related difficulties.
The Hwasong-17 reached a maximum altitude of 6,248km (3,880 miles) and travelled 1,090km (680 miles) during a 67-minute flight before landing in waters between North Korea and Japan, Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said.
The agency claimed the test met desired technical objectives and proved the ICBM could be operated quickly during wartime conditions.
The South Korean and Japanese militaries had announced similar flight details, which analysts say suggested that the missile could reach targets 15,000km (9,320 miles) away when fired on normal trajectory with a warhead weighing less than a ton. That would place the entire US mainland within striking distance.
Believed to be about 82ft (25m) long, the Hwasong-17 is the North’s longest-range weapon and, by some estimates, the world’s biggest road-mobile ballistic missile system. North Korea revealed the missile in a military parade in October 2020 and Thursday’s launch was its first full-range test.
The agency paraphrased Kim as saying that his new weapon would make the ‘whole world clearly aware’ of the North’s bolstering nuclear forces.
He vowed for his military to acquire ‘formidable military and technical capabilities unperturbed by any military threat and blackmail and keep themselves fully ready for long-standing confrontation with the US imperialists.’
South Korea’s military responded to Thursday’s launch with live-fire drills of its own missiles launched from land, a fighter jet and a ship, underscoring a revival of tensions as diplomacy remains frozen.
It said it confirmed readiness to execute precision strikes against North Korea’s missile launch points as well as command and support facilities.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters the United States requested an open Security Council meeting on the launch and looks forward to having it on Friday.
The United States also imposed fresh sanctions against five entities and individuals located in Russia and North Korea over transferring sensitive items to the North’s missile program, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.
Thursday’s test was North Korea’s 12th round of weapons launches this year and represented the most provocative test since President Joe Biden took office.
North Korea’s resumption of nuclear brinkmanship reflects a determination to cement its status as a nuclear power and wrest badly needed economic concessions from Washington and others from a position of strength, analysts say.
Kim may also feel a need to trumpet his military accomplishments to his domestic audience and drum up loyalty while the country faces economic difficulties.
The North this year has also launched a purported hypersonic weapon, a long-range cruise missile and an intermediate-range missile that could reach Guam, a major U.S. military hub in the Pacific.
The US and South Korean militaries previously said the North was preparing for a full-range test of the Hwasong-17 after concluding two of the recent midrange launches included components of the new ICBM.
Following a highly provocative streak in nuclear explosive and ICBM tests in 2017, Kim suspended such testing in 2018 ahead of his first meeting with then-President Donald Trump. But negotiations derailed in 2019 when the Americans rejected North Korean demands for a major release of US-led sanctions against the North in exchange for a limited surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
The ICBMs launched in three 2017 test flights demonstrated they could reach into the US mainland. The larger Hwasong-17 may be intended to be armed with multiple warheads to overwhelm missile defenses.
North Korea’s government in January had issued a veiled threat to end Kim’s moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests, citing U.S. hostility.
South Korea’s military has also detected signs that North Korea may be restoring some of the nuclear-testing tunnels it detonated just before Kim’s first meeting with Trump in 2018.
Some experts say the North may resume nuclear testing in coming months to claim it has acquired an ability to build nuclear warheads small enough to fit on some of its new delivery systems, including the hypersonic missile.
North Korea has previously said nuclear weapons are the only thing saving the country from sharing Ukraine’s fate – the first sign that Pyongyang was nervous about Russia’s invasion.
One high-ranking North Korean official said Ukraine would never have been attacked if it had kept its cache of Soviet nuclear weapons.
While another said only nukes could prevent foreign invasions, and that the regime should prioritise national defence above seeking international aid.
The startling admissions were revealed by Daily NK, a newspaper with sources inside the country, based in neighbouring South Korea.
The example of Ukraine is not the only reason North Korea fears giving up its nukes.
Pyongyang already viewed the denuclearisation of Libya in 2003 as a cautionary tale, noting how NATO later intervened there in 2011, leading to the death of its leader, Muammar Gaddafi.