News analysis

North Korea dashes hopes of talks as it races to build up nuclear muscle

SEOUL - Hopes of a sustained lull leading to dialogue were dented Wednesday (Nov 29) when North Korea ended two months of tranquility by launching what it claims is a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of striking all of the United States.

The test of the new Hwasong-15 missile - which North Korean state media claimed to mark the "completion" of its nuclear programme - drew condemnation from South Korean President Moon Jae In, who vowed to ramp up sanctions and pressure on the North while ordering military readiness to retaliate against provocations.

Mr Moon also spoke with United States President Donald Trump over phone and discussed the allies' joint response. They agreed that nuclear weapons "only serve to undermine North Korea's security and deepen its diplomatic and economic isolation", according to the White House.

South Korean analysts said the missile test came as no surprise as radio signals and movements indicative of a missile launch had already been detected the previous day. The regime last lobbed a missile over Japan on Sept 15.

Sogang University's international relations professor Kim Jae Chun said the 75-day gap between the tests could suggest that the North had been ironing out technical issues in its ICBM development. "The wishful thinking that there were no provocations in the past 75 days because North Korea was reassessing the situation from a different angle and leaning towards negotiation is not true," he added.

Dr Park Jee Kwang from Sejong Institute think tank said Pyongyang took a longer time to prepare a missile that is "a little bit more advanced" than the previously-tested Hwasong-14. "They will launch missiles whenever they are ready. I don't think international response or the response from South Korea or Japan will have any influence on their missile schedule."

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Launched at 3.17am (Korea time) from Pyongsong in the western South Pyongan province, the missile flew nearly 960km over 53 minutes and reached an altitude of 4,500km before landing in waters within Japan's exclusive economic zone. If fired at a normal trajectory, it could have flown more than 10,000km.

North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) then announced the country has successfully tested a Hwasong-15 ICBM that is capable of carrying a "super large" nuclear warhead and striking the whole US mainland. Leader Kim Jong Un, who observed the test, declared the completion of "state nuclear force".

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Catch a glimpse of daily life in North Korea, one of the world's most reclusive countries. The Straits Times spent a week in its capital Pyongyang in October.

The KCNA also said that North Korea, as a "responsible nuclear power and peace-loving state", will make "every possible effort" to defend global peace and stability.

While some experts view the declaration as a prelude to a possible freeze in provocations, others expect more missile or nuclear tests in the lead-up to South Korea hosting the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics next February.

Citing previous examples of North Korea sabotaging international events hosted by the South, like blowing up a Korean Air plane months before the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Dr Bong Young Shik of Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies said it would not be a surprise for Pyongyang to try to undermine the upcoming winter games.

Dr Bong urged the global community to unite in "continuously putting substantial pressure" on North Korea so it will return to the negotiation table. "It's a foot race whether North Korea would complete its second strike nuclear capability first, or the regime would crack under pressure first and... choose survival itself by abandoning nuclear weapons."

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