Seoul, South Korea (CNN) — North Korea has confirmed it has tested a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), its first long-range test in more than four years and marking a possible new era of regional confrontation.
North Korean state media said on Friday that leader Kim Jong Un had directly guided the launch of the weapon, known as Hwasong-17, the most advanced to date. The report described the launch as a “powerful nuclear war deterrent” and quoted Kim as saying the country’s forces were “fully ready” for a possible military confrontation with the United States.
The massive weapon could, at least theoretically, put the entire continental US within range of a North Korean nuclear warhead, but there are many unknowns about the missile’s ability to deliver a nuclear payload on target.
Here’s a look at the missile launched on Thursday.
What is the range of the missile?
North Korean state media on Friday released footage showing the massive liquid-fueled missile fired from a mobile launcher at Pyongyang International Airport.
The Korean Central News Agency report said the missile reached a maximum altitude of 6,248.5 kilometers (3,905 miles), flew a distance of 1,090 kilometers (681 miles), and had a flight time of 68 minutes before ” land precisely where intended,” in the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. That closely matched estimates from Japanese monitors, who said the missile fell within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of the Oshima peninsula in Hokkaido, the main island further to the west. northern Japan.
That is North Korea’s highest-altitude, longest-duration missile test on record.
Analysts said the missile was fired on a high trajectory, allowing it to avoid flying over any other countries. But they noted that if it were fired on the normal, flatter trajectory of an ICBM, it would have the entire continental United States within range.
“This is the longest-range missile North Korea has ever tested,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Can this missile carry a nuclear warhead?
The Hwasong-17 is certainly big enough to carry one, or possibly multiple nuclear weapons, experts say.
“What this really represents is North Korea’s steady progress toward being able to place multiple nuclear warheads on targets in the United States in the event of a war,” Lewis said.
But critically, progress does not mean the actual ability to do so.
While Thursday’s test showed the missile’s possible range, experts don’t know what kind of payload it was carrying. Because the weight of the payload ultimately affects how far a missile can fly, observers cannot know for sure the actual range of the missile without this information.
Can North Korea put nuclear warheads on the target?
Experts point out that Pyongyang has not shown whether it is capable of building a system that would allow the nuclear warhead to survive re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Because ICBMs are launched into space, like space shuttles or space capsules, the warhead must be able to withstand the fiery journey through the outer layers of Earth’s atmosphere without burning up.
“I’m someone who thinks he would probably (survive re-entry). There are some people who have doubts about that,” Lewis said.
But that’s something North Korea can learn from tests like Thursday’s, he said.
What’s Next for North Korea’s Missile Program?
Leader Kim Jong Un has laid out an ambitious plan to give North Korea a credible nuclear deterrent, meaning an arsenal powerful enough to prevent any adversary, notably the United States, from attacking.
According to Friday’s KCNA report, Kim said Thursday’s test affirmed that North Korea’s strategic forces “are fully ready to fully curb and contain any dangerous military attempts by US imperialists.”
Lewis said the North Korean leader is “advancing” a long list of weapons modernizations unveiled more than a year ago.
“(Kim) said these are all the things that North Korea is going to do and that includes a multi-warhead ICBM, a solid-propellant ICBM, launching a military satellite and even putting a rocket-propelled submarine nuclear power in the sea,” Lewis said.
“I don’t think it will stop until the list is complete,” Lewis said.
North Korea has previously announced plans to improve the accuracy of its missiles and increase the range to 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles).
“I think we are firmly in a period of missile testing, nuclear testing and tension, which is probably going to last a year or so,” Lewis said.