U.S. military says it can counter new North Korean missile threat


SEOUL/WASHINGTON The U.S. military assured Americans on Wednesday that it was capable of defending the United States against any threat from North Korea’s newly developed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which Pyongyang says can carry a large nuclear warhead.

Taking a major step in its missile program, North Korea on Tuesday test-launched an ICBM, which some experts believe has the range to reach Alaska and the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

The test, the first of its kind by North Korea, led to the United States, Japan and South Korea requesting an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, scheduled to start at 3 p.m. (1900 GMT). The council is currently chaired by China.

Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis noted a successful test last month in which a U.S.-based missile interceptor knocked down a simulated incoming North Korean ICBM.

“So we do have confidence in our ability to defend against the limited threat, the nascent threat that is there,” he told reporters. He acknowledged though that previous U.S. missile defense tests had shown “mixed results.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the ICBM test completed his country’s strategic weapons capability that also includes atomic and hydrogen bombs, the state KCNA news agency said.

Pyongyang will not negotiate with the United States to give up those weapons until Washington abandons its hostile policy against the North, KCNA quoted Kim as saying.

“He, with a broad smile on his face, told officials, scientists and technicians that the U.S. would be displeased … as it was given a ‘package of gifts’ on its ‘Independence Day’,” KCNA said.

Kim ordered them to “frequently send big and small ‘gift packages’ to the Yankees,” it added.

The missile test is a direct challenge to U.S. President Donald Trump who has been urging China, North Korea’s main trading partner and only major ally, to press Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program.

Diplomats say Beijing has not been fully enforcing existing international sanctions on its neighbor, and has resisted tougher measures, such as an oil embargo, bans on the North Korean airline and guest workers, and measures against Chinese banks and other firms doing business with the North.

Trump denounced China’s trade with North Korea and cast doubt on whether Beijing is working with Washington to counter the North Korean nuclear threat.

“Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40 pct in the first quarter. So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in urged major powers to look into increased sanctions against North Korea. “This is a great threat and provocation,” Moon said at a joint news conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Leaders from the Group of 20 nations meeting in Germany this week are due to discuss steps to rein in North Korea’s weapons program, which it has pursued in defiance of Security Council sanctions.

DIPLOMATIC PRESSURE

Trump has indicated he is running out of patience with Beijing’s efforts on 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.

A 2015 U.N. document estimated that more than 50,000 North Korean workers were earning currencies overseas for the government, mostly in China and Russia.

North Korea appeared to have used a Chinese truck, originally sold for hauling timber but converted for military use, to transport and erect the missile on Tuesday.

David Pressman, who was deputy U.S. envoy to the United Nations in the Obama administration, said the North Korean leadership seemed unaffected by Security Council condemnations.

“The Council can continue to adopt robust resolutions, impose strong coercive measures, and issue stern condemnations, but … Kim Jong Un doesn’t seem to care and Beijing has not proven itself serious about implementing those measures that are already in place,” Pressman said.

Russia and China on Tuesday jointly urged North Korea to suspend its ballistic missile program in return for a moratorium on large-scale military exercises by the United States and South Korea.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the joint statement showed the international community wanted dialogue and not antagonistic voices, as he also urged North Korea not to violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“We hope relevant countries can maintain calm and restraint, and not take steps that might worsen tensions on the peninsula,” Geng told a daily briefing.

Russia and China, both permanent members of the Security Council, oppose any attempt to resolve the crisis by force or by strangling North Korea economically, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday.

“The task of the denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula cannot and should not be used as a disguise for attempts to change North Korea’s regime. This is our common position,” he told a news conference.

The North’s state media said the missile, Hwasong-14, flew 933 km (580 miles), reaching an altitude of 2,802 km (1,741 miles) in its 39 minutes of flight.

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 parts of the U.S. mainland in range, a major advance in the North’s program.

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

It would now probably only be a year or two before a North Korean ICBM achieved “minimal operational capability,” he added.

Experts say a reliable nuclear-tipped ICBM would require a small warhead to fit a long-range missile, technology to protect against intense heat as it re-enters the atmosphere, separate the warhead and guide it to its target.

For graphic on interactive package on North Korea’s missile capabilities click: tmsnrt.rs/2t6WEPL

For map locating the missile test on July 4 click: tmsnrt.rs/2sGWo8C

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and David Brunnstrom in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York, Christian Shepherd in Beijing, Michael Nienaber in Berlin and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by James Dalgleish and Grant McCool)

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