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North Korea fires suspected long-range missile toward sea

People watch a TV showing a file image of North Korea's missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday.
Ahn Young-joon
People watch a TV showing a file image of North Korea's missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday.

Updated March 24, 2022 at 5:30 PM ET

SEOUL, South Korea — The U.S., South Korea and Japan all condemned what they say was a North Korean test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. It would be the 12th missile launch the North has conducted so far this year.

Hours after the launch, Pyongyang said it involved its newest Hwasong-17 ICBM, in a test ordered and personally overseen by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Yonhap news agency reports.

The U.S. and South Korean military had been expecting the launch. They claim that earlier this month and last, Pyongyang conducted similar ICBM trials under the guise of testing space satellite technology.

Thursday's test triggered a strong response from foreign governments, and from experts, who are concerned that this could be the newest and biggest ICBM Pyongyang has launched to date.

The missile landed in the exclusive economic zone of Japan, around 100 miles off its coast. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida condemned the launch as "reckless" and "unacceptable."

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff says the missile flew for 71 minutes, traveled a distance of 671 miles, and reached a maximum altitude of 3,852 miles. The North's distance and altitude figures differed only slightly, at 677 miles, and 3,882, respectively, according to Yonhap.

That would appear to be an upgrade over the last ICBM North Korea tested in 2017, the Hwasong-15, which is believed capable of reaching all of the continental U.S.

In a 2020 military parade, North Korea first revealed the Hwasong-17 ICBM. It is larger than the Hwasong-15, possibly in order to carry multiple warheads, which Pyongyang has indicated is a capability they intend to develop.

Fewer missiles with multiple warheads could be easier for North Korea to launch, and harder for the U.S. to intercept.

However, for North Korea, a downside of that approach, is that "it makes these individual missiles very vulnerable to a preemptive strike," while they're still on the ground, according to Melissa Hanham, an affiliate at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation.

"I find that quite destabilizing," she adds, "because they could be prone to an accident, miscalculation or misunderstanding of some kind."

South Korea's military responded to Thursday's test by launching its own ballistic and cruise missiles and dropping guided bombs, in order to "demonstrate the determination and capability to immediately respond and punish" the North, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in accused Pyongyang of violating a moratorium on ICBM and atomic bomb testing. North Korea imposed the moratorium on itself in 2017, ahead of a period of summit diplomacy. After talks ended without a deal to satisfy either Washington or Pyongyang, Kim signaled his intention to resume testing.

"We urge all countries to hold the DPRK accountable for such violations and call on the DPRK to come to the table for serious negotiations," White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement, referring to North Korea's official name. "The door has not closed on diplomacy, but Pyongyang must immediately cease its destabilizing actions," she added.

On Friday, the North's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper quoted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as saying: "It is necessary to make clear that whoever tries to infringe upon the security of our state shall pay dearly." The report did not make clear whether testing of the missile is complete and it is ready to be deployed.

If the missile technology is mature, North Korea's leaders will "feel confident they can move on to testing other strategic weapons, like submarine-launched ballistic missiles," predicts Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

If not, he adds, "they can continue testing frequently."

NPR's Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul, South Korea.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.