SEOUL — North Korea launched what South Korea called an intercontinental ballistic missile off its east coast on Saturday, a day after vowing to take “unprecedentedly persistent and strong” counteractions against the joint military drills that the United States and South Korea plan for this spring.
The launch was the North’s first missile test since New Year’s Day, when it fired a short-range ballistic missile, and its first ICBM test since Nov. 18, when it fired the Hwasong-17, the North’s most powerful long-range missile.
So far, all of the North’s ICBMs have been launched at a deliberately steep angle, so that they fly high into space rather than over Japan toward the Pacific. But flight data from the Hwasong-17 test indicated that if launched at a normal angle, the missile theoretically could reach the United States.
The South Korean military said that the most recent ICBM was launched on Saturday from near the international airport in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and flew about 560 miles to the east. Because this missile, like previous ones, was fired at a lofted angle, it fell into waters west of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, according to both Japanese and South Korean officials.
Japan’s defense minister, Yasukazu Hamada, told reporters that the North Korean missile had reached an altitude of roughly 3,540 miles. If fired at a normal ICBM trajectory, the missile could have traveled about 8,700 miles, enough to reach anywhere in the entire continental United States, he said.
North Korea’s Missile Tests
The offices of President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan each called a meeting of their country’s National Security Council to discuss the situation.
“It’s deplorable that North Korea persists in nuclear and missile development while its people are dying of hunger amid severe food shortages,” Mr. Yoon’s office said in a statement. “Through its provocations, the North will gain nothing but harsh international sanctions.”
North Korea launched at least 95 ballistic and other missiles in 2022 — more than in any previous year — as its leader, Kim Jong-un, doubled down on expanding its nuclear arsenal after the collapse of negotiations with Donald J. Trump, then the U.S. president, in 2019. The country tested several ICBMs last year, according to South Korean officials, although it called only two of them ICBMs.
North Korea launched a short-range ballistic missile on New Year’s Day, a sign it would persist in weapons development this year. On the same day, its state media announced that Mr. Kim had ordered an “exponential increase” in the North’s nuclear arsenal, calling on his military to “mass-produce” short-range nuclear missiles aimed at South Korea, which he called his country’s “undoubted enemy.”
On Saturday, South Korea condemned the launch as a “clear violation” of U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban the country from testing ballistic missiles and nuclear devices.
North Korea has defied them as Washington’s growing tensions with Russia and China left the Security Council split, ensuring that no new U.N. sanctions will be imposed for the military provocations.
With North Korea continuing its nuclear and missile brinkmanship, Washington and Seoul agreed to expand their annual military exercises this year to strengthen their combined deterrence against the North.
One such exercise, a tabletop drill, is scheduled for Wednesday at the Pentagon. Afterward, delegates from both sides are to visit an American naval base with nuclear submarines, as Washington seeks to reassure South Korea of its intention to defend it using all means, including nuclear, under the so-called extended deterrence doctrine. The allies are also scheduled to hold a large combined field exercise in South Korea in mid-March.
North Korea denounces such drills as a rehearsal for invasion, and its Foreign Ministry warned on Friday that the joint drills would plunge the Korean Peninsula into a “grave vortex of escalating tension.” Saturday’s ICBM launch appeared to be a fulfillment of this threat.
North Korea’s latest missile test also drew attention from analysts because it took place as the country is developing a new solid-fuel ICBM. Solid-fuel missiles are easier to launch and harder to spot. In recent years, the country has tested a series of short-range, solid-fuel ballistic missiles aimed at South Korea, and Mr. Kim wants to add a solid-fuel ICBM to his growing nuclear arsenal.
All three types of ICBMs that North Korea has tested so far have relied on liquid propellants. In December, the country tested a powerful new rocket engine that it said could be used to propel a solid-fuel ICBM. After that test, Mr. Kim urged his engineers to build a new, solid-fuel ICBM “in the shortest span of time.” During a military parade on Feb. 8, North Korea unveiled what analysts said was a new, solid-fuel ICBM that had never been tested before.
“North Korean missile firings are often tests of technologies under development, and it will be notable if Pyongyang claims progress with a long-range solid-fuel missile,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
Thursday was the birthday of Kim Jong-il, Mr. Kim’s father, who ruled before him and died in 2011. The North celebrates that birthday as a major holiday — sometimes with major weapons tests. Mr. Kim’s growing nuclear arsenal is the biggest achievement he can present to his long-suffering nation of 25 million people to justify his family’s dynastic rule.
Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo.