North Korea has tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time in five years. While Western governments and media have claimed the move violated a missile test moratorium, Pyongyang announced an end to that policy more than two years ago.
North Korea confirmed Thursday’s test in a statement, saying the missile was a new variant of its Hwasong-17 ICBM and that the launch was meant to prepare for “confrontation” with “US imperialists.”
According to Japanese officials, the missile flew for 71 minutes, a distance of 680 miles and reached a maximum altitude of more than 3,725 miles, a height and flight time significantly greater than the DPRK’s last test. Some analysts claim the ICBM is the largest missile to have ever been fired from a “road-mobile” launcher.
In early 2018, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un suspended missile tests during a period of warming ties with Washington under President Donald Trump. The self-imposed moratorium came just prior to the Singapore Summit – the first-ever top-level meeting between the two nations. In exchange, the United States later agreed to suspend provocative military drills with Seoul, in what was dubbed a ‘freeze for freeze’ arrangement.
However, the window for diplomacy was not open long, and the next meeting between Trump and Kim in Vietnam was a disaster. The Hanoi Summit was largely tanked by last-minute demands by National Security Advisor John Bolton, which were flatly rejected by Pyongyang.
By late 2019, bilateral ties had devolved to a point that Kim officially rescinded the freeze on missile tests. “We found no reason to be unilaterally bound any longer by the commitment that the other party fails to honor,” North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Chol said at the UN’s Conference on Disarmament in January 2020, citing “hostile” policies by the United States.
Despite some progress under the Trump administration – including a historic meeting with Kim at the DMZ – those positive steps would ultimately be undone. In addition to repeated demands for North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal and a refusal to lift sanctions, Trump also undermined efforts by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to improve diplomacy with the north.
Joe Biden’s North Korea policy has differed from Trump’s, more resembling that of President Barack Obama. Rather than issuing threats of “fire and fury,” the Biden administration maintains that it’s “prepared to meet without precondition” and harbors “no hostile intent toward the DPRK,” but nonetheless insists on the denuclearization of North Korea. The de facto policy of “strategic patience” produced no results in the first year of Biden’s presidency.
Since January, North Korea has carried out a series of 10 missile and rocket tests, some of which Pyongyang claims were for satellites, not weapons. South Korea has responded with a number of missile drills of its own.
While the White House had warned of an upcoming ICBM test for over a month ahead of Thursday’s launch, it appears the move will not alter US policy.
“The door has not closed on diplomacy, but Pyongyang must immediately cease its destabilizing actions,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, echoing Biden’s previous stance.
The US announced new sanctions against people and organizations from five countries accused of supporting weapons proliferation in Iran, North Korea and Syria on Thursday. Among them was North Korean national Ri Sung Chol, who was blacklisted for “transferring sensitive items” to the country’s missile program, as well as Pyongyang’s Second Academy of Natural Science Foreign Affairs Bureau. A Russian citizen and two Russian entities were also sanctioned for links to Pyongyang’s missile program, with the Treasury Department declaring they “highlight the negative role” Moscow plays on the world stage.