We Call Them Missiles He Made Them Toys, North Korea Fires a Ballistic Missile

WASHINGTON — North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday that flew both higher and longer than previous such launches, a bold act of defiance against President Trump after he put the country back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The president reacted cautiously to news of the launch, stating, “It is a situation that we will handle.”

But Defense Secretary Jim Mattis expressed greater concern, emphasizing what he said were technical advances on display in the 53-minute flight, which began when the missile was launched northeast of the capital, Pyongyang, and ended nearly 600 miles to the east, when it landed in the Sea of Japan.

“It went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken,” Mr. Mattis said in the White House, where he was taking part in a budget meeting with the president and Republican congressional leaders.

“The bottom line is, it’s a continued effort to build a threat — a ballistic missile threat that endangers world peace, regional peace, and certainly, the United States,” the defense secretary said.

North Korea said Wednesday that it had successfully tested its Hwasong-15, a newly developed ICBM that it said could deliver heavy nuclear warheads anywhere in the continental United States.

The country called the new missile its “most powerful” ICBM, saying it “meets the goal of the completion of the rocket weaponry system” North Korea has been devloping for decades. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, watched the launch, a broadcaster said, reading a prepared statement on the North’s Central Television.

Experts said this latest launch — which landed west of the northern end of Honshu, Japan’s largest island — exhibited characteristics that underscored the increasing sophistication of North Korea’s program.

The missile flew higher and for a longer duration than two previous intercontinental ballistic missile launches, which flew for 37 minutes on July 4 and for 47 minutes on July 28.

David Wright, a scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the missile performed better than the two fired in July, and exhibited a potential range of more than 8,000 miles, able to reach Washington or any other part of the continental United States.

“It’s pretty impressive,” Dr. Wright said of the test flight. “This is building on what they’ve done before. It’s muscle-flexing to show the U.S. that they’re going to continue to make progress.”

However, Dr. Wright noted that in an effort to increase the vehicle’s range, the North Koreans might have fitted it with a mock payload that weighed little or next to nothing. So the distance traveled, while impressive, does not necessarily translate into a working intercontinental ballistic missile that could deliver a thermonuclear warhead.

For all the evidence of technical advancements, a senior White House official said the significance of the launch should not be overstated, given the number of missile tests North Korea has carried out this year. The White House had expected some form of retaliation after it put the North back on its list of state sponsors of terrorism last week.

Mr. Trump, officials said, will stick to his policy of rallying nations to apply economic pressure on North Korea, backed up by the threat of military action. In a statement, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson condemned the launch. But he added, “Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now.”

The launch came in the middle of the night on the peninsula, with less advance warning, according to experts. Aerial photographs of North Korean launch sites did not show missiles waiting on launchpads to be fueled, although Japanese officials had reported that radio telemetry pointed to a possible launch.

Some experts theorized that North Korea was now fueling missiles horizontally, before they are placed on the launchpad. In the past, it went through a lengthier process of rolling a missile onto a launchpad, filling it with liquid fuel and then launching it — steps that could take days.

“This shortens the time from when they become visible to when they go in the air, and makes it less likely that the U.S. will be able to strike before it launches,” said Rodger Baker, a vice president of strategic analysis with Stratfor, a geopolitical risk analysis company.

American officials offered no proof of the horizontal fueling theory, but they acknowledged that North Korea is searching for ways to get around the United States’ ability to mount a pre-emptive strike.

Mr. Mattis noted that South Korea had fired several “pinpoint missiles” into the water after the launch “to make certain North Korea understands that they could be taken under fire by our ally.”

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