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What missile was it? Can it reach the US?

(CNN) — North Korea fired a ballistic missile without warning at Japan on Tuesday for the first time in five years, a highly provocative and reckless act that marks a significant escalation in its weapons testing program.

The missile flew over northern Japan early in the morning and is believed to have landed in the Pacific Ocean. The last time North Korea fired a ballistic missile at Japan was in 2017.

This marks North Korea’s 23rd ballistic missile launch this year, which is also the most ballistic missiles fired in a single year since leader Kim Jong Un took power in 2012. By comparison, Pyongyang conducted four tests. in 2020 and eight in 2021.

Here’s what you need to know about North Korea’s missile tests.

What do we know about the missile?

Tuesday’s missile traveled a distance of about 4,600 kilometers (2,858 miles), with an altitude of about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) and a top speed that reached Mach 17, which is 17 times the speed of sound, according to Japanese officials.

For comparison, the US island territory of Guam is just 3,380 kilometers (2,100 miles) from North Korea.

Two experts told CNN that these flight details suggest the missile fired was likely a Hwasong-12, an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) last tested in January.

“This is a missile that North Korea started testing in 2017… So it’s not really a new missile,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at CNS.

But, he added, its launch is significant because of the distance it can travel.

“North Korea has a lot of missiles that have a shorter range, and those wouldn’t pass over Japan, but they have a small number of missiles that could make that trip,” he said.

Why is this so important? There is danger?

North Korea routinely fires its missiles into the waters off the coast of the Korean peninsula, making this flight over Japan considerably more provocative, both for practical and symbolic reasons.

This type of unannounced launch could present risks to aircraft and ships as the missile travels towards its target, as they would not have advance warning to avoid the area.

And if the test had failed, causing the missile’s path to fall short, it could have endangered significant population areas. The missile flew over Japan’s Tohoku region, according to Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, which is home to more than 8 million people.

In the past, US planes have been grounded as a ‘precaution’ after North Korean missile launches. And in late November 2017, it was reported that several commercial airliner pilots saw what appeared to be the re-entry of a North Korean missile as it approached the Sea of ​​Japan.

However, Lewis stressed, such risks are statistically low, especially in the Pacific and high above Japan during the flyby. It’s mostly an escalation simply because “it’s provocative to fire a missile at your neighbor.”

“Especially to the Japanese, it feels like a violation of their sovereignty,” Lewis said. “If Russia fired a missile over Florida, we would have an attack.”

And, experts say, it’s a sign of Kim’s ambitions for North Korea’s weapons development, and of things to come.

Why did North Korea fire the missile now?

There are differing opinions about what may have prompted North Korea to fire Tuesday’s missile.

Robert Ward, senior fellow for Japanese Security Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, pointed to the multiple security threats Japan faces, from an aggressive Russia to the north and China to the south.

“North Korea may be trying to exploit the unstable international situation, which it could see as a tailwind,” he said.

Lewis disagreed, saying that while North Korea sometimes responds or retaliates for specific actions by Western actors or groups, for the most part “they have their own timetable…and I don’t think we’ll have much of an impact on the timetable.”

There are also practical reasons; North Korea often takes breaks from testing during the summer when the weather is bad, and resumes once fall and early winter arrives, meaning now could be the right conditions for a test, he added.

Joseph Dempsey, a research associate for defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, added that Tuesday’s flight path could simply serve as a better test.

These types of missiles are intended for long-range targets, so flying over Japan could help North Korea gauge their accuracy over a longer distance, their ability to withstand different forces exerted on the missile, and other factors, compared with its usual “elevated” tests, with missiles traveling at higher altitudes and falling towards the west of Japan.

Now what next?

Kim had promised earlier this year to develop North Korea’s nuclear weapons at the “highest possible” speed, and experts say Tuesday’s launch is part of that push for weapons advancement.

“North Korea will continue to conduct missile tests until the current round of modernization is finished,” Lewis said, adding that a nuclear test could take place “at any time.”

South Korean and US officials have been warning since May that North Korea may be preparing for a nuclear test, with satellite images showing activity at its underground nuclear test site.

If North Korea conducts a test, it would be the country’s seventh underground nuclear test and the first in nearly five years.

There are also other missile tests to watch. In addition to the Hwasong-12, North Korea also has three intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of flying over Japan, though these have not been tested “to their full range yet,” Lewis said.

“This is probably an appetizer before the main course, which is yet to come,” he added. “I would hope that when North Korea gets more confident in one of its ICBMs, it could fly one of them at full speed over Japan.”

Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, added that North Korea may be waiting until China holds its Communist Party Congress in mid-October to “take an even more meaningful test.”

“The Kim regime is developing weapons such as tactical nuclear warheads and submarine-launched ballistic missiles as part of a long-term strategy to outperform South Korea in an arms race and drive a wedge between America’s allies,” Easley said.

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