SEOUL—Nuclear-armed North Korea conducted what could be its largest missile test since 2017 on Sunday, analysts said, after governments in Japan and South Korea reported a suspected ballistic missile launch.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that a projectile believed to be a single ballistic missile was launched about 7:52 a.m. local time from North Korea’s Jagang Province toward the ocean off its east coast.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a televised briefing that if the projectile was a standard ballistic missile, it is estimated to have reached an altitude of 2,000 kilometers and flown for 30 minutes to a distance of 800 kilometers.
Jagang Province was the site of two launches this month of what North Korea said was a “hypersonic missile,” which could reach high speeds while flying and maneuvering at relatively low altitudes.
Analysts said if confirmed, Japan’s estimates could indicate one of the largest missile tests by North Korea in years.
North Korea has not tested its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) or nuclear weapons since 2017, but the country’s rulers suggested this month they could restart those activities.
Missile experts said the data could also indicate a test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) such as the Hwasong-12, which was last tested in 2017. IRBMs typically have ranges of 600 to 3,500 miles, while ICBMs have ranges exceeding 3,500 miles.
“Regardless of whether it’s a IRBM or ICBM, this is a strategic missile of some sort and clearly not the same as the prior tests in the January 2022 test series to date,” George William Herbert, an adjunct professor at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and a missile consultant, said on Twitter.
The launch could make January the busiest ever for North Korea’s missile programme, which analysts say is expanding and developing new capabilities despite strict sanctions and United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban the country’s ballistic missile tests.
“All signs suggest this is a big test – not performing as well as prior North Korean ICBMs, but could have been deliberately flown on a more limited trajectory,” said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.
The test comes less than a week before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, which is North Korea’s main political and economic partner. Pyongyang has said it would be skipping the Games because of the COVID-19 pandemic and “hostile forces.”
By Josh Smith and Cynthia Kim