North Korea fired a ballistic missile at Japan without warning for the first time in five years on Tuesday, a highly provocative and reckless act that marked a major escalation in its weapons-testing program.
The missile flew over northern Japan early in the morning and is believed to have landed in the Pacific Ocean. The last time North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan was in 2017.
It marked North Korea’s 23rd missile launch this year, including the most ballistic missile launches in a single year since Kim Jong-un took power in 2012. By contrast, Pyongyang has conducted four tests in 2020 and eight in 2021.
Here’s what you need to know about North Korea’s missile test.
According to Japanese officials, Tuesday’s missile flew about 4,600 kilometers (2,858 miles), reached an altitude of about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), and reached a top speed of Mach 17, or 17 times the speed of sound.
By comparison, the U.S. territory of Guam is only 3,380 kilometers (2,100 miles) from North Korea.
Two experts told CNN that the flight details indicated that the missile launched was likely the Hwasong-12 – an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) that was last tested in January.
“This is a missile that North Korea began testing in 2017 … so it’s not really a new missile,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of CNS’ East Asia Nonproliferation Program.
But, he added, its launch was significant because of the distance it could travel.
“North Korea has a bunch of shorter-range missiles that won’t fly over Japan — but they have a small number of missiles that can make the journey,” he said.
North Korea routinely fires missiles into waters off the coast of the Korean peninsula — making this flight over Japan all the more provocative, both for practical and symbolic reasons.
Such an unannounced launch could pose a risk to aircraft and ships as the missile travels down to the target, as they have no prior warning to avoid the area.
If the test fails and the missile falls short of its requirements, it could endanger major population areas. According to Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, the missile flew over Japan’s northeastern region, which is home to more than 8 million people.
In the past, U.S. planes have been grounded as a “precautionary measure” following North Korean missile launches. In late November 2017, it was reported that several commercial jet pilots saw North Korean missiles appearing to re-enter as they approached the Sea of Japan.
Lewis stressed, however, that the risk is statistically low, especially in the distant Pacific and high above Japan, as it flies overhead. Most of the time, the escalation was simply because “launching missiles at neighbors was provocative.”
“Especially for the Japanese, it felt like a violation of their sovereignty,” Lewis said. “If Russia fires a missile over Florida, we’ll be blown away.”
And, experts say, it shows Kim Jong-un’s ambitions for North Korea’s weapons development — and for the future.
Opinions are divided on what might have led to North Korea’s launch of Tuesday’s missile.
Japan faces multiple security threats, from an aggressive Russia in the north to China in the south, said Robert Ward, a senior fellow in Japan security studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“North Korea may be trying to take advantage of the unstable international situation and see it as a tailwind,” he said.
Lewis disagreed, saying that while North Korea sometimes responds to or retaliates against specific actions by Western actors or groups, for the most part “they have their own timetables … and I don’t think we Timing has a big impact.”
There are also practical reasons; he added that North Korea often suspends testing in the summer when the weather is bad and resumes it again when the fall and early winter arrives — meaning that now may just be the right conditions for testing.
Joseph Dempsey, a research fellow in defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, added that Tuesday’s flight path could have been better tested.
These types of missiles are aimed at long-range targets – so flying them over Japan could help North Korea measure its accuracy at longer distances, its ability to withstand different forces exerted on the missiles, and other factors, as opposed to its usual “staking” Than” test – travel at a higher altitude and splash in western Japan.
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Kim Jong-un vowed earlier this year to develop North Korea’s nuclear weapons at the “highest rate possible” — and experts said Tuesday’s launch was part of a push to advance the weapons.
“North Korea will continue to conduct missile tests until this round of modernization is complete,” Lewis said, adding that nuclear tests could be conducted “at any time.”
South Korean and U.S. officials have been warning North Korea may be preparing for a nuclear test since May, with satellite images showing activity at its underground nuclear test site.
If North Korea conducts the test, it would be the country’s seventh underground nuclear test and the first in nearly five years.
There are other missile tests to watch. In addition to the Hwasong-12, North Korea has three intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of flying over Japan, although the missiles have not yet been “fully tested,” Lewis said.
“It’s probably an appetizer for the main course, which hasn’t come yet,” he added. “I expect that when North Korea has more confidence in one of their ICBMs, they may fly one of their ICBMs full-range over Japan.”
Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, added that North Korea may have to wait until after China convenes a Communist Party congress in mid-October before “a bigger test”.
“The Kim regime is developing weapons such as tactical nuclear warheads and submarine-launched ballistic missiles as part of a long-term strategy to surpass South Korea in the arms race and sow discord among U.S. allies,” Easley said.