What you need to know about North Korea’s missile test on Japan

Seoul, South Korea

North Korea Launched a ballistic missile without warning Japan On Tuesday, for the first time in five years, a highly provocative and reckless act marked a major escalation in the weapons testing program.

The missile traveled over northern Japan early in the morning, and is believed to have landed in the Pacific Ocean. The last time North Korea fired a ballistic missile at Japan It was in 2017.

This marks North Korea’s 23rd missile launch this year, including the largest number of ballistic missiles launched in a single year since it took command. Kim Jong-un He took power in 2012. By comparison, Pyongyang conducted four tests in 2020 and eight in 2021.

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Tuesday’s missile flew about 4,600 kilometers (2,858 miles), an altitude of about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) and a top speed of Mach 17 — 17 times the speed of sound, according to Japanese officials.

For comparison, the US island of Guam is located 3,380 kilometers (2,100 miles) from North Korea.

Two experts told CNN that these flight details indicate that the missile launched was likely a Hwasong-12 — an IRBM that was last tested in January.

“This is a missile that North Korea started testing in 2017…so it’s not really a new missile,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of CNS’s East Asia Nonproliferation Program.

But, he added, launching it is important because of the distance it can go.

“North Korea has a bunch of missiles that have a shorter range, and they won’t pass over Japan – but they have a small number of missiles that can make that flight,” he said.

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North Korea usually fires its missiles into the waters off the coast of the Korean peninsula – making this flight over Japan even more provocative, both for practical and symbolic reasons.

This type of unannounced launch may pose risks to aircraft and ships as the missile travels to its target, as they will not have advance warning to avoid the area.

And if the test fails, causing the missile to fail, it could put key populations at risk. The missile flew over Japan’s Tohoku region, according to Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, which is home to more than 8 million people.

In the past, American planes have been stopped As a precautionary measure after North Korea launched missiles. In late November 2017, several commercial airline pilots reportedly witnessed what appeared to be a re-entry of a North Korean missile as it approached the Sea of ​​Japan.

However, Lewis emphasized that such risks are statistically low, particularly those far in the Pacific and those high above Japan while in flight. Mostly, it’s an escalation simply because “it’s a provocation to launch a missile at your neighbour.”

“For the Japanese in particular, it looks like a violation of their sovereignty,” Lewis said. “If Russia launched a missile at Florida, we would be right.”

Experts say it’s a sign of Kim’s ambitions to develop North Korean weapons – and what’s yet to come.

There are mixed opinions about what might have prompted North Korea to launch a missile on Tuesday.

Robert Ward, senior fellow for Japanese security studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, noted the multiple security threats Japan faces, from an aggressive Russia to its north and China to its south.

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“North Korea may try to exploit the unstable international situation, which it will see as a tailwind,” he said.

Lewis disagreed, saying that although North Korea sometimes responds to or retaliates with specific actions by Western players or groups, the bulk of them “have their own schedule… and I don’t think we have much of an influence on timing.”

There are also practical reasons; He added that North Korea often takes breaks in testing during the summer when the weather is bad, and re-emerges once autumn and early winter arrive – meaning that now could be the right conditions for testing.

Joseph Dempsey, research associate in defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, added that Tuesday’s itinerary could only lead to a better test.

These types of missiles are intended for long-range targets—so flying them over Japan could help North Korea gauge its accuracy at a longer distance, its ability to withstand the various forces exerted on the missile, and other factors, compared to its usual “heights.” “Tests – which travel at a higher altitude and lower down in western Japan.

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Earlier this year, Kim pledged to develop North Korea’s nuclear weapons As quickly as possible — and experts say Tuesday’s launch is part of that push to advance the weapons.

“North Korea will continue to conduct missile tests until the current round of modernization is over,” Lewis said, adding that the nuclear test could come “at any time.”

South Korean and US officials have warned since May that North Korea may be preparing for a nuclear test, as satellite images show activity at an underground nuclear test site.

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If North Korea conducts a test, it will be the country’s seventh underground nuclear test and the first in nearly five years.

There are also other missile tests to watch. Aside from the Hwasong-12, Lewis said, North Korea also has three ICBMs capable of flying over Japan, although they have not been tested “to their full range yet.”

“Maybe these will be an appetizer for the main course that has yet to come,” he added. “My expectation is that when North Korea has more confidence in one of its ICBMs, it might fly one of those missiles to full range over Japan.”

Leif Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewa Women’s University in Seoul, added that North Korea may wait until China holds its Communist Party congress in mid-October “for a more significant test.”

“The Kim regime is developing weapons such as tactical nuclear warheads and submarine-launched ballistic missiles as part of a long-term strategy to defeat South Korea in an arms race and drive a wedge between US allies,” Easley said.

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