(CNSNews.com) – North Korea declared Wednesday that its latest intercontinental ballistic missile test has achieved for the regime the goal of bringing the entire continental United States within range of its nuclear warheads.
Hours after signaling it would make an “important” announcement following the test, state television cited Kim Jong-un as saying that the regime has realized its “great historic cause” of completing the state nuclear force. It identified the missile launched before dawn on Wednesday local time as a Hwasong-15.
Earlier, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the ICBM had flown higher than any previously tested, alluding to concerns that the Stalinist regime is approaching the ability to threaten U.S. territory.
“It went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken,” Mattis told reporters at the White House. “It’s a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten everywhere in the world, basically.”
Mattis said the South Koreans in response launched “pinpoint missiles out into the water to make certain North Korea understands that they could be taken under fire by our ally.”
He said Pyongyang was continuing to develop a ballistic missile capability “that endangers world peace, regional peace, and certainly the United States.”
President Trump, sitting with Mattis and congressional leaders in the Roosevelt Room, said, “it is a situation that we will handle” and “we will take care of that situation,” without elaborating.
Asked whether the launch would bring about any changes to his approach on dealing with North Korea, he said, “Nothing changed. We have a very serious approach, but nothing changed. We take it very seriously.”
North Korea’s first test in more than two months saw an ICBM fly for some 1,000 kilometers before landing the Sea of Japan – inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, according to Pentagon spokesman Col. Robert Manning.
He said the North American Aerospace Defense Command had determined that the launch did not pose a threat to North America, U.S. territories or allies.
The 1,000 km cited by the Pentagon was the distance on the Earth’s surface from the ICBM launch site to the point of splashdown. But the missile was launched in a steep upward trajectory: South Korea’s military said it reached an apogee of 4,500 km during its 53-minute flight.
In contrast, a North Korean missile test-fired last May covered a horizontal distance of 787 km kilometers and reached an altitude of just over 2,111 km before it, too, landed in the Pacific.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) missile defense project, had that earlier missile been launched on a range-maximizing ballistic trajectory, it could have flown about 4,500 km, bringing Guam and even the far western end of the Aleutian Islands within reach. CSIS cautioned, however, that range estimates would depend on payload weight.
Wednesday’s missile reached a higher altitude than the one last May. With a standard (shallower) trajectory, it could be capable of traveling more than 13,000 km, according 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., and in fact any part of the continental United States,” he said.
Wright, too, noted the payload weight factor, pointing out that a nuclear warhead would be “much heavier” than the very light mock warhead with which the missile launched Wednesday was likely tipped.
Last July the regime twice tested another ICBM variant, which it identified as the Hwasong-14. The projectile launched on July 4 reached an altitude of around 2,800 km and the one launched on July 28 an altitude of about 3,700 km.
‘On a pathway where this capability is inevitable’
Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart told the Senate Armed Services Committee last May that with every new test, the North Koreans were learning.
Getting a missile to survive re-entry into the atmosphere en route to its target was a key capability which he said the regime has yet to achieve – “but that’s really a matter of trial and error.”
(A ballistic missile re-entry vehicle must withstand the extreme heat generated as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. Pyongyang is known to have been testing heat shields for that purpose.)
“Let me be clear on this point,” Stewart told the panel. “If left on its current trajectory, the regime will ultimately succeed in fielding a nuclear-armed missile capable of threatening the United States homeland.”
He added that it was nearly impossible to predict when it would have that ability, but said that Pyongyang “is committed and is on a pathway where this capability is inevitable.”
In a phone conversation, Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to maintain maximum pressure on North Korea.
“Both leaders underscored the grave threat that North Korea’s latest provocation poses not only to the United States and the Republic of Korea but to the entire world,” the White House said in a statement.
A spokesman for Moon said the president had delegated authority beforehand to armed forces chiefs to respond to any launch with a precision missile exercise. That enabled the quick response from the South Korean army, navy and air force, referenced by Mattis in Washington.
The South Korean live-fire missile exercise took place off the east coast of Korea, near the “northern limit line” – a maritime border which the North does not recognize – with an army missile unit, a Navy vessel and an air force fighter each firing a missile at a target.
Moon’s spokesman said the country had “demonstrated its capability to target the origin of North Korean provocations.”