Sunday's launch could signal that North Korea is planning more provocations, including long-range missile and nuclear test launches. The North will try to exert further pressure on the Biden administration in order to get sanctions relief or international recognition of its legitimate nuclear state status.
According to the official Korean Central News Agency, the test was done in order to verify the accuracy of Hwasong-12 missiles that are being used by its military.
North Korea claimed that the missile was launched towards waters off its east coast at a high angle in order to avoid flying over other countries. The North Korean government did not provide any further information.
According to South Korean, Japanese and Japanese estimates, the missile flew approximately 800 km (497 miles) before reaching a maximum altitude at 2,000 kilometers (1 242 miles). It landed in waters between Japan and the Korean Peninsula.
According to the flight details, it is the most powerful missile North Korea tested since 2017 when it launched Hwasong-12 missiles and longer-range missiles in a series of weapons firings that culminated in the acquisition of the ability to launch nuclear attacks on U.S. military bases throughout Northeast Asia and the Pacific.
KCNA published two sets combination photos. One shows the missile rising from a launcher, and soaring into the sky. The other shows North Korea and surrounding areas, which it claimed were captured from space by a camera attached to the missile's warhead. The authenticity of these images could not be independently verified by the Associated Press.
Lee Choon Geun is a South Korean missile expert and honorary researcher at the Science and Technology Policy Institute. He believes the photos were taken from space, especially as the missile was reaching its apogee. However, he cannot independently verify that there was any adjustment to the images. Although it is rare for a weapon to have a camera attached, Lee stated that North Korea wanted to show its technological progress to domestic and foreign audiences.
The Hwasong-12 missile can be used as a ground-to-ground nuclear weapon. It has a maximum range up to 4,500 km (2,800 miles) when fired in a standard trajectory. This distance is sufficient to reach Guam. Guam is home to U.S. military base that have sent warplanes to Korea in show of force in the past. At the height of animosities against the Trump administration, North Korea threatened to set "an enveloping flame" near Guam using Hwasong-12 missiles in August 2017.
Experts believe that North Korea tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles, Hwasong-14 & Hwasong-15, in 2017. This demonstrated their ability to reach the U.S. mainland. Analysts believe that North Korea needs to continue to fly ICBM tests to show it has overcome any remaining technological obstacles, including protecting a warhead against the extreme heat and pressure when it reenters the Earth's atmosphere.
North Korea has been testing a range of weapons systems in recent months and has threatened to lift a 4-year moratorium on more serious weapons test such as nuclear explosions or ICBM launches. Sunday's launch marked the seventh round of North Korean missile launches in January. Other weapons that were tested recently included a sub-launched missile and a development hypersonic missile.
Cheong Seong Chang, a private analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, said that the Hwasong-12 rocket launch was partially breaking North Korea’s weapons-test moratorium. Kim stated that North Korea no longer needed to test intermediate-range missiles after it suspended its nuclear and ICBM testing in April 2018. This was before now-dormant diplomacy between the Trump administration and North Korea.
Cheong stated that North Korea would likely test-launch its long-range missiles if it is subject to new sanctions. Others suggested that North Korea could also test-fire a nuclear weapon.
North Korea has made it clear that it will be adding more powerful ICBMs to its arsenal. These include a longer-range ICBM capable of precision strike, a solid fuel ICBM that increases a weapon's mobility and a multi-warhead missile.
Officials from the White House said that they considered Sunday's missile launch part of an increasing number of provocations in recent months, which has made them more concerned.
According to a senior administration official, the Biden administration will respond to the latest missile testing in the next days with an unspecified action meant to show the North that it is committed to security in the region.
According to the official, the missile test on Sunday was seen by the administration as just one more in a series to gain sanctions relief from the U.S. The Biden administration called for North Korea to resume talks, but it made clear that it does not consider the kind of leader-to–leader summits Donald Trump had with Kim constructive.
Officials from Japan and South Korea also condemned Sunday's launch. This violated U.N Security Council resolutions that prohibit the country testing nuclear weapons.
The U.S.-led diplomatic effort to convince North Korea to end its nuclear program remains largely ineffective.
"Even if Washington had more bandwidth to pay attention to the North Korean nuke issue, Pyongyang will likely continue to reject direct talks due to the pandemic and keep perfecting its weapon technology, while maintaining its high price tag for negotiations," Duyeon Kim, an analyst with Washington's Center for a New American Security, said.
North Korea may suspend its weapons testing during the Beijing Winter Olympics, according to observers. China is North Korea's most important ally. They also believe that North Korea could test larger weapons after the Olympics are over and when the U.S. military and South Korean militaries start their springtime military exercises.