The North Korean ICBM test launch involved a new type of missile carrying a dummy warhead that may have survived re-entry into the atmosphere, a U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday.
Both developments -- a new missile and a potentially survivable warhead -- could force a re-calculation of the timeline for North Korea's stated intention of fielding an ICBM with a miniaturized nuclear warhead capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
"This was a very provocative action. It has our attention," said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
The U.S. and South Korean response was to fire two precision short-range ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) into the waters off South Korea in a "snap" exercise meant to show resolve. South Korea and the U.S. each fired one, Davis said.
U.S. officials and analysts had previously estimated that North Korea was 3-5 years away from developing an ICBM with a nuclear warhead that was re-entry survivable. "Clearly they are working on it, clearly they seek to do it," Davis said.
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In its first-ever launch Tuesday of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), North Korea demonstrated a capability "we have not seen before," said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.The missile, called the Hwasong-14 by North Korea, was similar to a missile first displayed at a military parade in late 2015 called the KN-14.
However, the 38 North website, which closely tracks North Korea's missile programs, said that the two-stage new missile used a single main engine on its first stage as opposed to the dual engines on the KN-14.
"This act demonstrates that North Korea poses a threat to the United States and our allies, and we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies and to use the full range of our capabilities at our disposal against the growing threat from North Korea," Davis said.
U.S. Pacific Command initially indicated that the launch was of an IRBM, or Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, but U.S. officials later took into account the missile's high trajectory and said it had flown more than 3.400 miles, the benchmark for qualifying as an ICBM. On a flatter trajectory, the missile could have hit Alaska.
In the launch, North Korea also demonstrated that it was working on tactics to avoid a potential pre-emptive strike on its missiles. The Hwasong-14 was a mobile missile transportable by truck and it was launched from a site north of Pyongyang that the North Koreans had never used before.
North Korea has also been developing solid fuel rockets which can be launched more quickly than the liquid-fueled types.
Davis said the launch site was near the Panghyon aircraft plant, about 60 miles north of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Launching from unexpected places was "a new tactic we've seen them use more" to avoid potential counter-measures, Davis said.
At the United Nations Wednesday, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said the latest provocation by North Korea had increased the risk of conflict on the peninsula.
"Make no mistake, North Korea's launch of an ICBM is a clear and sharp military escalation," Haley said at an emergency UN Security Council meeting.
"Their actions are quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution. The United States is prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies. One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces. We will use them, if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction."
While signaling U.S. alarm, Haley suggested that the U.S. would continue to focus on diplomatic and economic pressure rather than risk a military confrontation that could devastate the peninsula.
The North Korean launch could also complicate what were already expected to be difficult talks Thursday and Friday at an economic summit in Hamburg, Germany, with world leaders. Trump was expected to meet on the sidelines Thursday with Chinese President Xi Jinping and with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday.
Trump has been pressuring China, and to a lesser extent Russia, to use their economic leverage to rein in the aggressive actions of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.