North Korea tests biggest missile since 2017, U.S. calls for talks

A combination image shows what appears to be a Hwasong-12 "intermediate and long-range ballistic missile" test, that state media KCNA says was carried out on Sunday, along with pictures reportedly taken from outer space with a camera at the warhead of the missle, in this image released on January 31, 2022. [KCNA via REUTERS]

North Korea confirmed on Monday it had launched a Hwasong-12 ballistic missile, the same weapon it had once threatened to target the U.S. territory of Guam with, sparking fears the nuclear-armed state could resume long-range testing.

The launch of the intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) was first reported by South Korean and Japanese authorities on Sunday. It was the seventh test conducted by North Korea this month and the first time a nuclear-capable missile of that size has been launched since 2017.

The United States is concerned North Korea's escalating missile tests could be precursors to resumed tests of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and vowed an unspecified response "designed to show our commitment to our allies," a senior U.S. official told reporters in Washington. 

"It's not just what they did yesterday, it's the fact that this is coming on the heels of quite a significant number of tests in this month," the official said, while urging Pyongyang to join direct talks with no preconditions.

North Korea has said it is open to diplomacy, but that Washington's overtures are undermined by its support for sanctions and joint military drills and arms buildups in South Korea and the region.

Amid a flurry of diplomacy in 2018, including summits with then-U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared his nuclear force complete and said he would suspend nuclear testing and launches of the country's longest-range missiles.

Kim said he was no longer bound by that moratorium after talks stalled in 2019, and North Korea suggested this month it could restart those testing activities because the United States had shown no sign of dropping its "hostile policies."

It is unclear if IRBMs such as the Hwasong-12 were included in Kim's moratorium, but none had been tested since 2017.

North Korea analysts said the tests appear aimed at securing global acceptance of its weapons programmes, whether through concessions or simply winning tired acquiescence from a distracted world.

"The world’s distraction on other issues actually seems to be working to North Korea’s benefit right now," Markus Garlauskas, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank and former U.S. national intelligence officer for North Korea.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the recent flurry of North Korean missile tests was reminiscent of heightened tensions in 2017, when North Korea conducted multiple nuclear tests, launched its largest missiles, and drew threats of "fire and fury" from the United States.