North Korea launched a ballistic missile, characterized initially by United States Pacific Command as an “land-based, intermediate range,” on Monday at 2:40 p.m. Hawaii time (7:40 p.m. Eastern). The missile flew for 37 minutes, according to U.S. officials, but the North American Aerospace Defense Command determined the missile did not pose an immediate threat to North America.
On Tuesday afternoon, U.S. authorities changed course, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying in a statement emailed to Mic that the device was indeed an intercontinental ballistic missile — a device with a greater range, possibly capable of reaching the United States.
“Testing an ICBM represents a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region, and the world,” Secretary Tillerson said in the statement. “Any country that hosts North Korean guest workers, provides any economic or military benefits, or fails to fully implement UN Security Council resolutions is aiding and abetting a dangerous regime.”
How serious is this development? U.S. and international authorities are still assessing the launch and its implications. Japanese officials declined to comment to the Associated Press on North Korea’s claim that the missile was an ICBM (the term for a missile capable of going at least 3,500 miles and thus striking certain parts of the United States). It’s a major breakthrough for North Korea’s troubled nuclear program: Until the launch, only China, the United States and Russia were presumed to possess land-based ICBM missiles.
Even if North Korea is capable of launching these kinds of missiles, there is no evidence that the country is capable of fully weaponizing them by miniaturizing and attaching a nuclear warhead, or by ensuring the device can exit and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Still, it is notable in its own right that North Korea’s missile program has begun to “exceed expectations,” as the Center for American Progress’ Adam Mount noted in a tweet. That would suggest that even if the missile couldn’t currently pose a direct threat to the U.S., the country is getting close to developing the technology, which some analysts predict could happen within President Donald Trump’s term.
Even before Secretary Tillerson’s announcement, experts told Time that based on the altitude, North Korea appears to have developed a missile with enough firepower to reach Alaska. “That’s it. It’s an ICBM,” Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies tweeted. “An ICBM that can hit Anchorage, not San Francisco, but still.”
David Wright, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists similarly wrote in a blog post that, based on the missile’s launch time and trajectory, “that same missile could reach a maximum range of roughly 6,700 km (4,160 miles) on a standard trajectory,” noting that such distance 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.”
In April, Arizona Sen. John McCain said the U.S. should not rule out the option of conducting a preemptive strike if North Korea continued to conduct tests under the auspices of its nuclear program. Of course, a decision to strike against North Korea would likely have to come over the objection of China, and would be subject to approval from South Korea and Japan, since these countries would face the brunt of any retaliation, according to Robert Kelly, a political scientist based in South Korea and an expert in Korean affairs.
Still, officials in North Korea are celebrating the launch as a historic achievement: North Korea’s state-run television claimed that the nation was now “a full-fledged nuclear power” in possession of “the most powerful inter-continental ballistic rocket, capable of hitting any part of the world,” according to a BBC report.
Officials in Russia and China both condemned the exercise and called on North Korea to declare a moratorium on its missile tests, according to the BBC. As part of a de-escalation plan, released in a joint statement on Tuesday, China and Russia called on North Korea to place a moratorium on its missile program, according to Reuters; the U.S. and South Korea would also have to stop conducting large-scale military exercises, per the proposal.
Later on Tuesday, the South Korean military and the U.S. army performed a joint-exercise of their own as a response, launching a series of missiles into South Korean waters, according to a Washington Post report.
On Monday night, President Donald Trump tweeted about the launch, saying “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” — presumably about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The president also called on China to “end this nonsense.”
The timing is notable for a few reasons. In addition to aligning closely with America’s Independence Day, the launch comes less than a week after Trump met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in for the first time. On Friday, Trump will also meet with leaders of the 20 richest countries in the world at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.
Tensions over North Korea have been rising for some time. Before Trump assumed office, President Barack Obama warned him that North Korea was “the top national security priority.”
In April, China — a key middleman between the U.S. and North Korea since the U.S. does not formally acknowledge North Korean statehood — accused U.S. and South Korean officials of “engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent.” In June, tensions escalated further after the family of Otto Warmbier — a U.S. student who was detained in North Korea for more than a year after trying to steal a propaganda poster — announced that Warmbier had died shortly after being returned to U.S. custody.
That said, North Korea has also signaled it might be open to talks with the U.S., after Trump called Kim a “real smart cookie” and indicated that he would be open to a meeting under the right conditions.
July 4, 2017, 7:38 p.m. Eastern: This story has been updated.