July 4, 2017 5:00 pm
Updated: July 4, 2017 10:25 pm

North Korea claims to have tested ICBM that can carry nuclear warhead

WATCH: North Korea says it has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching Alaska. As Jackson Proskow reports, that has heightened tensions with the United States, prompting fears of direct conflict.

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North Korea said on Wednesday its newly developed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) can carry a large nuclear warhead, triggering a call by Washington for global action to hold Pyongyang accountable for its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

A spokeswoman for the Pentagon said it had concluded that North Korea test-launched an ICBM, which some experts now believe had the range to reach parts of the mainland United States.

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the test, on the eve of the U.S. Independence Day holiday, represented “a new escalation of the threat” against the United States and its allies, and vowed stronger measures.

The launch, on the eve of U.S. Independence Day, appeared to be a test of a two-stage missile, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The United States initially concluded that it was an intermediate-range missile and the administration has not yet officially changed that assessment.

READ MORE: Reality check: Is North Korea’s missile launch a real threat or just propaganda?

The United States requested a closed-door meeting of the 15-member U.N. Security Council on the launch, a session likely to be scheduled for Wednesday, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations said on Tuesday.

The launch, on the eve of U.S. Independence Day, took place days before leaders from the Group of 20 nations were due to discuss steps to rein in North Korea’s weapons program, which it has pursued in defiance of Security Council sanctions.

North Korea’s state media said the launch was ordered and supervised by leader Kim Jong Un and sent the Hwasong-14 933 km (580 miles), reaching an altitude of 2,802 km (1,741 miles) over a flight time of 39 minutes.

North Korea has said it is working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland, something U.S. President Donald Trump vowed in January would never happen.

Some analysts said the flight details suggested the new missile had a range of more than 8,000 km (4,970 miles), which would put significant parts of the U.S. mainland in range, representing major advances in its program.

David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said the flight time and distance suggested the missile could travel about 6,700 km (4,163 miles), bringing all of Alaska into range.

READ MORE: China, Russia offer plan to ease tensions as North Korea fires ballistic missile

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the missile was believed to be an intermediate-range type, but the military was looking into the possibility it was an ICBM.

The Pentagon and State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the TV network reports but said the U.S. government was working on a more detailed assessment of the launch. On Monday night, the Pentagon described the missile as an intermediate-range type that traveled for 37 minutes.

U.S.-based missile expert John Schilling, a contributor to the Washington-based North Koreamonitoring project, 38 North, said the launch was both earlier and “far more successful than expected.”

He said it would now probably only be a year or two before a North Korean ICBM achieved “minimal operational capability” and it was likely the initial test did not perform as well as an operational missile would.

“Still, this missile demonstrated a degree of performance that is beyond what is needed to reach Anchorage – or Pearl Harbor – but not quite sufficient to reliably reach targets on the U.S. West Coast,” he said.

Schilling said the U.S. national missile defense system was “only minimally operational” and would take more than two years to upgrade to provide more reliable defense.

North Korea said its missiles were now capable of striking anywhere in the world.

Officials from South Korea, Japan and the United States said the missile landed in the sea in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone after being launched on a high trajectory.

Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Seoul’s Kyungnam University, said that if launched on a standard angle, the missile could have a range of more than 8,000 km (4,970 miles).

WATCH: Russia and China join forces over North Korea

Trump frustration with China

Trump has been urging China, North Korea’s main trading partner and only big ally and the current chair of the U.N. Security Council, to press Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program. In an apparent reference to Kim Jong Un, Trump tweeted: “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?”

READ MORE: Donald Trump on North Korea’s missile launch: ‘does this guy have anything better to do’

“Hard to believe South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer,” he added. “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”

Trump has indicated he is running out of patience with Beijing’s efforts to rein in North Korea. His administration has said all options are on the table, military included, but suggested those would be a last resort and that sanctions and diplomatic pressure were its preferred course.

While China has responded to previous North Korean tests of suspected ICBM technology by agreeing to tougher U.N. sanctions, it emphasized on Tuesday its call for a return to talks withNorth Korea by signing a joint statement with Russia.

Under China’s plan, North Korea would suspend its ballistic missile program in return for a moratorium on large-scale military exercises by the United States and South Korea, which Washington and Seoul say are essential to maintain defense readiness.

Trump is due to meet both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G20 in Germany this week.

Japan said on Monday it would have a trilateral summit with the United States and South Koreaon North Korea at the G20. Its prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said he would ask the presidents of China and Russia to play more constructive roles.

North Korea was a major topic in phone calls between Trump and the leaders of China and Japan this week.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang called on Tuesday for calm and restraint, and reiterated China’s opposition to North Korea’s violation of U.N. resolutions on missile tests.

Responding to Trump’s tweet, Geng said China had been working hard to resolve the NorthKorean nuclear issue.

“China’s role is indispensable,” he told a daily news briefing. “We hope all sides can meet each other halfway.”

North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, two since the beginning of last year, and the pace of missile tests has risen significantly. It says it needs to defend itself against U.S. aggression.

Analysts say it often conducts tests to show its defiance and to raise the stakes when it sees regional powers getting ready for talks or sanctions.

© 2017 Reuters

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