North Korea fires missile over Japan, demonstrating new might
After Pyongyang launched it without warning, the Japanese government sent a text alert to its people, advising them to take protective cover in case the test went wrong.
North Korea rattled the Trump administration last month by launching two intercontinental ballistic missiles, the second of which demonstrated the potential to reach the contiguous United States. But officials and analysts doubted that the country had mastered the technology needed to protect a nuclear warhead from intense heat and friction as it re-entered the atmosphere from space.
Tuesday’s test might have been most important for the development of more dependable intermediate-range missiles. But experts say it could also provide information for the crucial re-entry technology needed for a warhead on an intermediaterange missile to survive the fiery plunge back into the earth’s atmosphere.
It is less clear if that information could help the North pursue the especially difficult goal of developing the reentry technology needed to build a nucleartipped longer-range missile that could hit the mainland United States. Those warheads would re-enter more quickly, producing much higher heats.
Japan said it did not try to shoot the missile down because it did not detect a threat to its territory. But analysts said the test nevertheless underscored some uncomfortable questions about the possibility of defending against such missiles.
The allies could do little more than track the missile Tuesday as it arched over Hokkaido and splashed into the northern Pacific. Analysts said Japan could have tried to shoot it down if its Aegis destroyers, which are armed with SM3 Block I interceptor missiles, happened to be in waters between North Korea and Japan. But because the SM3 is slower than the Hwasong-12, they would have had to make the attempt before the missile passed over the ships.
And one analyst noted that Japan could have been caught off guard entirely had the destroyers been elsewhere — for example, if Japan had ordered them south in response to North Korea’s threat to fire missiles into the waters around Guam.
“After distracting attention toward Guam, North Korea fired the missile over Japan,” said Shin Jong-woo, a defense analyst at Korea Defense Forum, a Seoul-based network of military experts. “By doing so, it reduced the chance of its missile being shot down, and at the same time demonstrated its ability to hit a target as far away as Guam without actually launching the missile in its direction.”
South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, responded to the launch by ordering his military to “demonstrate a strong retaliatory capability against North Korea.” Four F-15K fighter jets soon dropped two bombs each at a domestic bombing range. The country’s air force called it a rehearsal of its capacity to “destroy the enemy leadership” in the event of war.
South Korea also released video footage showing test launches of its two newest ballistic missiles, components of its so-called “Kill Chain” program designed to destroy key North Korean targets. The tests were conducted on Thursday, but the military had not previously confirmed that they took place.