The United States has gone to extraordinary lengths to slow North Korea’s missile testing program — feeding flawed parts into the North Korean production system and attacking the missile program in cyberspace to cause test failures. Just a few hours before the test, Congress passed the latest round of sanctions aimed at squeezing the North.
While there have been some tactical successes that slowed the North Koreans, though, they ultimately have not stopped the weapons program. And Mr. Kim, determined to show the United States that he would not waver from his goal, has stepped up the pace of testing.
The White House had no immediate comment.
For President Trump, the launch poses one of the biggest challenges of his new presidency. Like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama before him, Mr. Trump has declared that the North would not succeed in obtaining a missile that could put American cities at risk. “It won’t happen,” he declared in a Jan. 2 tweet, not long after Mr. Obama warned him that the North would probably pose the most urgent national security threat he would face.
American officials, led by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have been careful not to threaten a pre-emptive strike on the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities, which Mr. Mattis has warned could reignite the Korean War. Cyber attacks, while more politically palatable, are of uncertain effectiveness. And sanctions have done little.
Now, outside experts said, it has happened. David C. Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a private anti-proliferation group in Cambridge, Mass., said in a blog post on Friday that the missile appeared to have an effective range of at least 6,500 miles — putting Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago well within range. He wrote that Boston and New York “may be just within range, and Washington “may be just out of range.”
But such estimates are always subject to interpretation. North Korea’s aim is famously poor. It is unclear how long it would take the country to build a workable nuclear warhead that can survive re-entry into the atmosphere.
And Dr. Wright cautioned that Western analysts have no idea of how much the payload on the missile weighed. “If it was lighter than the actual warhead the missile would carry,” he noted, the calculated ranges for a real warhead would be shorter.
The Pentagon confirmed that it had detected the missile launching from North Korea, but gave no estimates of how far it flew into space or what its actual range might be.
North Korea conducted its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, on July 4, calling it a “gift package for the Yankees.” South Korean officials have said that the July 4 test demonstrated that the missile was capable of reaching Alaska, but that it remained unclear whether the North had mastered all technologies needed to deliver a nuclear warhead to targets in the continental United States.
On Saturday in Seoul, the South Korean military said in a statement that the latest test “is a more advanced ICBM-class missile” than the one launched July 4.
The South Korean military said that Friday’s missile was launched from a site in Jagang Province, a mountainous north-central area of North Korea bordering on China, at 11:41 p.m. local time on Friday.
South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, called an emergency meeting of his National Security Council and ordered his military to conduct joint ballistic missile tests with the United States military in a “strong show of power,” his office said. Similar missile exercises were held following the North’s July 4 launching.
The growing North Korean threat also prompted Mr. Moon to reverse his decision to halt deployment of an advanced United States missile defense system known as Thaad. In a statement issued early Saturday, he told his military to push ahead with the Thaad system.
North Korea is a closed society, and the secrecy of its government makes it difficult to tell exactly how far its weapons programs have advanced. But experts believe it is not yet capable of making nuclear warheads suitable for mounting on ICBMs.
South Korean defense officials have said since the July 4 test that it was too early to determine whether North Korea had mastered long-range missile technology, especially re-entry, when a warhead section must survive intense heat and the destruction of its outer shell as it plunges from space through the earth’s atmosphere.
The North Korean missile test came a day after the United States Senate o passed sanctions aimed at deterring North Korea’s missile and nuclear development, as part of a package that also targets Russia and Iran. It is unclear whether Mr. Trump will sign it into law.
The bill authorizes strong sanctions against those providing North Korea with crude oil and other related products. The bill prohibits ships owned by North Korea or by countries that refuse to comply with United Nations resolutions against North Korea from operating in American waters or docking at American ports. Goods produced by forced labor in North Korea would be not be allowed to enter the United States, according to the bill.
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