On Tuesday, North Korea successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14. Washington and its allies confirmed that the weapon was an ICBM and condemned the test as a violation of United Nations resolutions and a dangerous escalation of tensions.
The top American general in South Korea said on Wednesday that âself-restraintâ was all that was keeping the United States and South Korea from going to war with the North.
The unusually blunt warning, from Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the commander of American troops based in Seoul, came as the Southâs defense minister indicated that the Northâs missile had the potential to reach Hawaii.
âSelf-restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war,â General Brooks said, referring to the 1953 cease-fire that halted but never officially ended the Korean War. âAs this alliance missile live-fire shows, we are able to change our choice when so ordered by our alliance national leaders.
âIt would be a grave mistake for anyone to believe anything to the contrary.â
Although doubts remained about whether North Korea had cleared all the technical hurdles to make the Hwasong-14 a fully functional ICBM, the launch prompted the United States and South Korea to conduct a joint missile exercise off the east coast of the South on Wednesday. The drill involved firing an undisclosed number of ballistic missiles into the sea.
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea asked President Trump on Tuesday night to endorse the joint exercise, arguing that the allies needed to respond to the Northâs provocation with âmore than statements,â Mr. Moonâs office said.
The South Korean military said the missiles, which had a range of about 185 miles, had been fired to test their ability to launch âa precision strike at the enemy leadershipâ in case of war. It did not say how far the missiles had traveled.
Japanâs chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said on Wednesday that Japan and the United States had agreed to take âspecific actions to improve our defense systems and our ability to deter North Korea.â
Mr. Suga did not say what those actions were, but a spokesman for the Defense Ministry said the government was considering buying ballistic missile defense systems from the United States.
Japan is considering the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad, which the United States recently deployed in South Korea, the spokesman said. It is also looking at another system, known as Aegis Ashore, which is similar to what Japan already deploys aboard naval destroyers.
The Japanese news media has reported that the government is also discussing buying Tomahawk or other cruise missiles, which would give Japan the ability to strike North Korea.
Yasushi Kojima, the Defense Ministry spokesman, denied those reports, which would face strong opposition in Japan. But an American official familiar with the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the purchase of cruise missiles was being discussed.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump criticized China on Wednesday for failing to do more to pressure North Korea on its nuclear program, suggesting that he was re-evaluating the United Statesâ trade relationship with Beijing.
The propaganda battle between the Koreas escalated on Wednesday, even as Asian stock markets appeared to shrug off the latest tensions. The Northâs leader, Kim Jong-un, said the missile test was intended to âslap the American bastards in their faceâ and was a Fourth of July âgift packageâ for the âYankees.â
South Korea released a computer–animated video showing missile strikes at the heart of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. The video featured an American B1-B bomber and German-made Taurus air-to-land cruise missiles.
The Taurus, which is meant to destroy targets underground, is often cited as a critical weapon South Korea would use in an operation to âdecapitateâ the Northâs government.
The video showed flags and government buildings in Pyongyang in flames.
The North Korean missile launched on Tuesday was fired at a steep angle, flying a horizontal distance of only 578 miles but reaching an altitude of more than 1,700 miles, according to North Korean, South Korean and Japanese officials.
Speaking to the South Korean National Assembly on Wednesday, the defense minister, Han Min-koo, said that the Hwasong-14, if launched on a standard trajectory, could have a range of 4,350 to 4,970 miles, enough to hit Alaska and possibly Hawaii.
Analysts had said on Tuesday that the missile appeared to be capable of striking Alaska. Hawaii is farther, about 4,780 miles from Kusong, the North Korean town where the missile was fired.
A ballistic missile is considered an ICBM when its range is greater than 5,500 kilometers, or about 3,420 miles, according to military analysts.
But Mr. Han said although the Hwasong-14 was developed as an intercontinental missile, it was still too early to determine whether North Korea had mastered long-range missile technology, especially the re-entry ability that allows an ICBMâs warhead section to survive the intense heat and destruction of its outer shell as it plunges from space through the earthâs atmosphere.
Mr. Han said an ICBM warhead section must endure a heat of 7,000 degrees Celsius, or 12,630 degrees Fahrenheit, while hurtling toward Earth at a speed of at least Mach 21, or 4.5 miles per second. The North Korean missileâs maximum velocity was âfar belowâ that, Mr. Han said, casting doubt that the missile was put through a proper atmospheric re-entry test.
He added that the real test was whether the warhead section âperformed its military functionâ after it re-entered the atmosphere.
North Korea carried the missile to its test site on a 16-wheel truck, believed to have been imported from China and reconfigured for military purposes. But the missile was launched from a platform, indicating that the country had not developed the ability to launch it directly from the vehicle, South Korean officials said. A missile fired from a vehicle is harder to counter because it requires less time to prepare to launch, they said.
The North also said its missile was capable of carrying a âlarge-sized heavy nuclear warhead.â Some analysts say that North Korea is probably still years away from developing a nuclear warhead small and light enough to fit into a long-range rocket that could reach the continental United States.
If North Korea successfully develops an ICBM, it would drastically change strategic calculations by the United States and its allies, analysts said. Such a missile would give decision makers in Washington reason to pause before deciding to strike the country.
At the United Nations, where the 15 members of the Security Council were summoned to an emergency meeting on North Korea requested by the United States, the crisis oddly coincided with the final negotiations on a draft treaty for a global ban on nuclear weapons. More than 120 countries have participated in the negotiations, which have been boycotted by all nuclear-armed states. The final draft is expected to be approved on Friday.
Disarmament advocates attending the negotiations said the North Korea crisis was a direct consequence of what they called the failure of the nuclear-deterrent doctrine, which holds that the only way to avoid nuclear war is to ensure an attackerâs destruction.
âNorth Korea is the genie thatâs come out of the bottle,â Bill Kidd, a Scottish lawmaker who is co-president of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, said at a news conference about the treaty. He added that North Korea would not have pursued nuclear bombs âif it werenât for the fact that possessor states have had these weaponsâ for decades.