SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile into high altitude on Wednesday morning, demonstrating that the country was making progress after five consecutive failures in just over two months, analysts said.
The projectile, a Musudan missile, took off from Wonsan, a port city east of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and flew about 250 miles over the sea between North Korea and Japan, South Korea’s Office of Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
Although the missile fell far short of its estimated full range of more than 2,000 miles — far enough to reach American military bases in the Pacific — the test is the first for the Musudan that was not immediately dismissed as a failure by the United States or South Korea.
South Korea said that in the North’s previous five Musudan tests, including one earlier on Wednesday, the projectiles had all crashed into the sea or exploded in midair soon after liftoff.
The progress the North demonstrated with its sixth test was disconcerting enough for South Korea to convene a meeting of top security-related ministers later on Wednesday to discuss the growing missile and nuclear threats.
Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman for the South Korean government, called the launch a “clear provocation” that violated United Nations Security Council resolutions banning the North from developing ballistic missile technology.
In Washington, John Kirby, a State Department spokesman, said that the United States strongly condemned the tests and intended to discuss the North’s prohibited activities at the Security Council.
“This missile launch, like previous ones, is a clear violation of United Nations resolutions,” said Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan. “We cannot tolerate it and have protested firmly.”
The Japanese Defense Ministry said it believed that the test showed that the North’s missile technology was advancing. The second of the two missiles fired on Wednesday had reached an altitude of 620 miles, it said, “indicating a degree of capability as a midrange ballistic missile.”
South Korean analysts said that North Korea appeared to have launched the second missile at a sharper angle to achieve a higher altitude and prevent it from flying over Japan. They said such an altitude was required to test a technology that protects a nuclear warhead from the extreme heat and friction that it would encounter upon crashing through the earth’s atmosphere.
The North began testing the Musudan on April 15, after repeated calls by its leader, Kim Jong-un, for his military to conduct more nuclear and missile tests despite international sanctions. It has also repeatedly threatened nuclear strikes against the United States, claiming that it has built nuclear weapons small enough to be mounted on its various ballistic missiles.
The country has successfully tested its short-range Scud and midrange Rodong missiles. The Rodong, with an estimated range of 810 miles, can reach all of South Korea and most of Japan.
But the road-mobile Musudan is the North’s only intermediate-range ballistic missile with a range long enough to reach United States military bases in Guam, a major launching pad for American reinforcements should a war break out on the Korean Peninsula.
Analysts say the North has been struggling to master the so-called warhead re-entry technology needed to build longer-range projectiles known as intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The altitude reached on Wednesday was the highest achieved by any North Korean missile and close to heights reached by intercontinental ballistic missiles, analysts said.
“The test appears to have been fully successful,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an analyst at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He said that if North Korea had launched the missile on a normal trajectory, it would have flown the full range of about 2,480 miles.
Mr. Lewis said the development of the Musudan is especially worrisome because it also advances the North’s KN-08 program of developing its first intercontinental ballistic missile with a range long enough to reach the United States. The first stage of the KN-08 missile comprises a pair of Musudan-type engines, he said.
“I don’t believe North Korea failed again and again in testing the Musudan itself, which it had deployed 10 years ago,” said Kim Dong-yup, an analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul. “What it has been trying to do with such difficulty was to use the Musudan as a vehicle to test the re-entry and detonation system for an ICBM.”
Lee Choon-geun, an expert on North Korean missiles at the Science and Technology Policy Institute of South Korea, said that by launching the missile at a sharper angle, North Korea could also have it fall closer to its territory so it could collect the test data more easily.
“What we don’t know is how the re-entry test went, whether the warhead’s flight was properly controlled and whether it was detonated with the correct timing or just plunged into the sea,” Mr. Lee said.
North Korea’s missiles have seldom worked on the first try, but a string of five successive failures with the Musudan was unusual even by the country’s checkered standards. Analysts have attributed the failures to Mr. Kim. In his rush to demonstrate an ability to strike American military bases, they said, Mr. Kim was not giving his engineers enough time to fix problems before retesting.
The United States Strategic Command said that the two Musudan missiles fired on Wednesday posed no threat to North America.
But North Korea’s persistence in testing the same missile model six times since mid-April showed that it was determined to build a capacity to develop a ballistic missile that would extend the striking range for its nuclear warheads.
The country has never carried out a successful test flight of a long-range missile that could reach the continental United States.
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