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North Korea's missile launch appears to put D.C. in range

If it had been launched on a normal trajectory, the missile could have flown 8,100 miles, scientists said.

This image made from video of a news bulletin aired by North Korea's KRT on Nov. 29, 2017, shows an image of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un signing what is said to be a document on Nov. 28, 2017, authorizing a missile test.
This image made from video of a news bulletin aired by North Korea's KRT on Nov. 29, 2017, shows an image of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un signing what is said to be a document on Nov. 28, 2017, authorizing a missile test.Read moreKRT via AP Video

TOKYO – North Korea claimed the entire United States mainland was within reach after "successfully" testing a new kind of intercontinental ballistic missile, which it called the Hwasong-15, and said could carry a "super large heavy warhead."

While Pyongyang is prone to exaggeration, its boast of having all of the United States in range is in line with experts' calculations that the missile launched Wednesday, which flew 10 times higher than the International Space Station, could theoretically reach Washington, District of Columbia.

"With this system, we can load the heaviest warhead and strike anywhere in the mainland United States," North Korea's most famous newsreader, Ri Chun Hee, said in a special live broadcast on state television. "This missile is far more technologically advanced than July's Hwasong-14. This signifies that our rocket development process has been completed."

Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, had personally authorized the launch, Ri said, a photo of Kim at his desk and the handwritten order appearing on the screen.

Wednesday's launch, the first in more than two months, is a clear sign that the North Korean leader is pressing ahead with his nation's stated goal of being able to strike the United States' mainland and is not caving in to the Trump administration's strategy of applying "maximum pressure."

The missile logged a longer flight time than any of its predecessors and went farther into the atmosphere than ever before, reaching a height of 2,800 miles. The International Space Station, by comparison, is 240 miles above the Earth.

President Trump, together with his counterparts in South Korea and Japan and the U.N. secretary general, condemned the latest launch. "We will take care of it," he told reporters at the White House, calling it a "situation we will handle."

He later tweeted that Democrats should join with Republicans to pass a spending measure to avert a government shutdown. "After North Korea missile launch, it's more important than ever to fund our gov't & military!"

Trump has repeatedly said that military options are on the table for dealing with North Korea and has suggested that time has run out for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear problem.

A growing chorus of voices in Washington is calling for serious consideration of military action against North Korea, although this is strongly opposed by South Korea, where the Seoul metropolitan region – home to 25 million people – is within the range of North Korean artillery.

And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that "diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now." He added: "The United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearization and to ending belligerent actions by North Korea."

The missile was launched just before 3 a.m. Wednesday from South Pyongan province in the western part of North Korea, where Kim had recently visited a catfish farm, according to state media.

It reached a height of about 2,800 miles before landing 54 minutes later some 620 miles from the launch site, in waters inside Japan's exclusive economic zone. The splashdown site was about 130 miles off the coast of Aomori prefecture.

This suggested that it had been fired almost straight up – on a "lofted trajectory" similar to North Korea's two previous intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

The Pentagon said that the projectile did indeed appear to be an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. The latest missile "went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they've taken," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said. He described the launch as part of an effort to build missiles "that can threaten everywhere in the world."

If the missile had flown on a standard trajectory designed to maximize its reach, it would have a range of more than 8,100 miles, said David Wright, co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington, D.C.," Wright said.

The U.S. capital is 6,850 miles from Pyongyang. The previous intercontinental ballistic missile tested, the Hwasong-14 tested on July 28, was in the air for 47 minutes and could have flown 6,500 miles were it on a normal trajectory. Hwasong means "Mars" in Korean.

The South Korean and Japanese governments both convened emergency national security council meetings after the launch, and both leaders talked to Trump by phone.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said its military also conducted a "precision strike" launch exercise in response, firing missiles into the sea.

Although it may be cold comfort, it is still unlikely that North Korea is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland – despite Wednesday's claims. That still requires mastering reentry technology and the difficult task of fitting a nuclear warhead into a missile and have it survive the extremes of temperature and vibrations involved with leaving and coming back into the Earth's atmosphere.

But Pyongyang has been making rapid progress toward achieving that goal, saying it needs to be able to protect itself from a "hostile" Washington. It has made observable advances this year, firing two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July, the second of which was technically capable of reaching as far as Denver or Chicago.

Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, said that Trump's pressure-centric approach was clearly not stopping North Korea's missile advances.

"Testing a ballistic missile capable of reaching Washington, D.C., is likely as much a psychological victory for North Korea as it is a technical advancement," Davenport said. "Pyongyang can now back up its belligerent threats to target U.S. cities with nuclear warheads."

However, there was a still a question mark over whether North Korea could reliably and accurately deliver a nuclear warhead to a target, she said.

A senior South Korean official said Tuesday that North Korea could announce next year that it has completed its nuclear weapons program.

"North Korea has been developing its nuclear weapons at a faster-than-expected pace. We cannot rule out the possibility that North Korea could announce its completion of a nuclear force within one year," Cho Myoung-gyon, the unification minister, who is in charge of the South's relations with the North, told foreign reporters in Seoul.

But for now, the North Koreans still appear to be in the testing stage, rather than the operational one, said Markus Schiller, a German aerospace engineer who specializes in missiles. "If they are serious about their missile program, they have to launch from time to time, and at different times of the day and in different weather."

North Korea still has a way to go with its missile program, Schiller said. "Perhaps they can hit Washington, D.C., with this, but they can't fight a war with it," he said.

Kim Jong Un opened 2017 with a New Year's address announcing that North Korea had "entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of intercontinental ballistic missile."

Then, in July, his regime launched two ICBMs, the first on U.S. Independence Day. After its most recent missile launch, an intermediate-range missile that flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido on Sept. 15, North Korea said it was seeking military "equilibrium" with the United States as a way to stop American leaders from talking about military options for dealing with Pyongyang.

That was the second launch over Japan in less than three weeks and came less than two weeks after North Korea exploded what was widely believed to be a hydrogen bomb.

Those events triggered ire overseas, with Trump denouncing North Korea's regime during a speech to the United Nations General Assembly and mocking Kim as "little Rocket Man."

But despite an increase in tensions over the past two months, including a U.S. Navy three-carrier strike group conducting military exercises in the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, 74 days had passed without any missile launches by the North.

That was the longest pause all year, according to Shea Cotton, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. The pause had raised hopes that North Korea might be showing interest in returning to talks about its nuclear program.

In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations late last month, Joseph Yun, the State Department's special representative for North Korea policy, said that if North Korea went 60 days without testing a missile or a nuclear weapon, it could be a sign that Pyongyang was open to dialogue.