North Korea announced on Wednesday that it has achieved its goal of becoming a nuclear power after its successful test of a ballistic missile that can reach the mainland of the United States.
Pyongyang said the new powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) reached an altitude of around 4,475 km (2,780 miles) - more than 10 times the height of the international space station - and flew 950 km (600 miles) during its 53 minute flight.
The apparent power and suddenness of the new test jolted the Korean Peninsula and Washington. The launch at 3:17 a.m. local time and midday in the US capital indicated an effort to perfect the element of surprise and to obtain maximum attention in the United States.
“After watching the successful launch of the new type ICBM Hwasong-15, Kim Jong Un declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power,” according to a statement read by a television presenter.
"The development and advancement of the strategic weapon of the DPRK are to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country from the US imperialists' nuclear blackmail policy and nuclear threat, and to ensure the peaceful life of the people, and therefore, they would not pose any threat to any country and region as long as the interests of the DPRK are not infringed upon," said the statement, referring to North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
North Korea has conducted dozens of ballistic missile tests under its leader, Kim Jong Un, in defiance of international sanctions. In September, it conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test.
Wednesday’s test came a week after US President Donald Trump put North Korea back on a US list of countries it says support terrorism, allowing it to impose more sanctions.
Many nuclear experts say the North has yet to prove it has mastered all technical hurdles including the ability deliver a nuclear warhead reliably atop an ICBM, but likely soon will.
“We don’t have to like it, but we’re going to have to learn to live with North Korea’s ability to target the United States with nuclear weapons,” said Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies.
The new Hwasong-15, named after the planet Mars, was a more advanced version of the Hwasong-14 ICBM tested twice in July, North Korea said. It was designed to carry a “super-large heavy warhead” and had much greater advantages in its tactical and technological specifications than its predecessor.
Based on its trajectory and distance, the missile would have a range of more than 13,000 km (8,100 miles) - more than enough to reach Washington DC, the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists said.
However, it was unclear how heavy a payload the missile was carrying, and it was uncertain if it could carry a large nuclear warhead that far, the nonprofit science advocacy group added.
US, Japanese and South Korean officials all agreed the missile, which landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, was likely an ICBM. It did not pose a threat to the United States, its territories or allies, the Pentagon said.
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said the missile landed inside of Japan's special economic zone in the Sea of Japan, about 250 kilometers 155 miles) west of Aomori, which is on the northern part of Japan's main island of Honshu.
“It went higher frankly than any previous shot they’ve taken, a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten everywhere in the world, basically,” US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the White House.
Trump spoke by phone with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-In, with all three leaders reaffirming their commitment to combat the North Korean threat.
“It is a situation that we will handle,” Trump told reporters.
Moon told Trump that North Korea’s missile technology seemed to have improved, a spokesman for the South Korean leader’s office said.
Trump, who was briefed on the missile while it was in flight, said it did not change his administration’s approach to North Korea, which has included new curbs to hurt trade between China and North Korea.
Washington has said repeatedly that all options, including military ones, are on the table in dealing with North Korea.
“Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.
Other than carrying out existing UN sanctions, “the international community must take additional measures to enhance maritime security, including the right to interdict maritime traffic” traveling to North Korea, Tillerson said in a statement.
The UN Security Council was scheduled to meet on Wednesday to discuss the launch, which Secretary General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned.
“This is a clear violation of Security Council resolutions and shows complete disregard for the united view of the international community,” his spokesman said in a statement.
Minutes after the North fired Wednesday’s missile, South Korea’s military conducted a missile-firing test in response, the South Korean military said.
South Korea’s Moon said the launch had been anticipated and the government had been preparing for it. There was no choice but for countries to keep applying pressure and sanctions against North Korea, he added.
"If North Korea completes a ballistic missile that could reach from one continent to another, the situation can spiral out of control," Moon said at an emergency meeting in Seoul, according to his office. "We must stop a situation where North Korea miscalculates and threatens us with nuclear weapons or where the United States considers a preemptive strike."
Moon, a liberal who has been forced into a more hawkish stance by a stream of North Korean weapons tests, has repeatedly declared that there can be no US attack on the North without Seoul's approval, but many worry that Washington may act without South Korean input.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service told lawmakers in a closed-door briefing on Wednesday that the possibility of another North Korean nuclear test "cannot be discounted," lawmaker Kim Byung-kee said.
The test comes less than three months before South Korea hosts the Winter Olympics at a resort just 80 km (50 miles) from the heavily fortified border with the North.
US stocks briefly pared gains on the news but the S&P 500 index closed up almost 1 percent and Asian markets largely shrugged off the news.
North Korea has said its weapons programs are a necessary defense against US plans to invade. The United States, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war, denies any such intention.