Nuclear-armed North Korea conducted two back-to-back tests of a powerful new medium-range missile on Wednesday, with both achieving a significant increase in flight distance over previous failed launches, South Korea’s Defence Ministry said.
Both tests were believed to be of a much-hyped, intermediate-range Musudan missile capable of reaching US bases as far away as Guam.
The US State Department strongly condemned the launches, saying they represented clear violations of UN resolutions banning North Korea from any use of ballistic missile technology.
The first test shortly before 6:00 am (2100 GMT Tuesday) was deemed to have failed after reportedly flying around 150 kilometres (90 miles) over the East Sea (Sea of Japan).
The South Korean defence ministry said the second Musudan — fired from the same east coast location two hours later — had flown 400 kilometres.
“South Korea and the United States are conducting further analysis,” the ministry said in a statement that stopped short of labelling the second test a success or failure.
Four failed Musudan tests this earlier this year all either exploded on the mobile launch pad or shortly after take-off.
A successful test would mark a major step forward for a weapons programme that ultimately aspires to develop a proven nuclear strike capability against the US mainland.
US State Department spokesman John Kirby said the latest launches would only increase global efforts to counter North Korea’s illicit weapons programme.
“We intend to raise our concerns at the UN to bolster international resolve in holding (North Korea) accountable for these provocative actions,” Kirby said in a statement.
Japanese broadcaster NHK quoted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as saying such tests “cannot be tolerated”.
A Pentagon statement said the US military had tracked both missiles and determined they “did not pose a threat to North America”.
First unveiled as an indigenous missile at a military parade in Pyongyang in October 2010, the Musudan has a theoretical range of anywhere between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometres.
The lower estimate covers the whole of South Korea and Japan, while the upper range would include US military bases on Guam.
Three failed launches in April were seen as an embarrassment for North Korea’s leadership, coming ahead of a rare ruling party congress that was meant to celebrate the country’s achievements.
Another attempt in May was also deemed to have failed.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified high-ranking government official as saying the second test on Wednesday demonstrated an obvious “improvement in capacity and technology”.
The official said the missile appeared to have been fired on an unusually high trajectory to limit its range.
The latest tests came with military tensions on the divided Korean peninsula still running high following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch a month later that saw the UN Security Council impose its toughest sanctions to date on the North.
In recent months, North Korea has claimed a series of technical breakthroughs in developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to targets across the continental United States.
The North has displayed an ICBM, the KN-08, during military parades, but it has never been tested.
Melissa Hanham, an expert on North Korea’s WMD programme at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, said Wednesday’s launches represented a worrying step forward.
“I don’t know if it’s a success, but it is definitely progress. Testing is iterative and they are learning from each flight,” Hanham told AFP.
“Policymakers need to focus on a testing ban to prevent this from becoming a working missile”.