North Korea’s last two missile launches were actually tests of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, U.S. officials said Thursday, as they threatened fresh sanctions on Pyongyang and warned of a “serious escalation” in tensions.
The launches on February 26 and March 4 did not demonstrate ICBM range but were likely meant to evaluate the new system before conducting a test at full range in the future, potentially disguised as a space launch, according to a statement from Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.
North Korea had not given many details about the tests, other than to say they were in preparation for the launch of a military spy satellite.
On Friday, state media reported North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the country’s Sohae Satellite Launching Ground. Pictures showed Kim, wearing a black leather jacket and sunglasses, speaking with top North Korean defense officials as they stood in front of a launch tower.
Kim announced plans to “build a number of new elements in the launching ground so as to launch the military reconnaissance satellite and other multipurpose satellites by diverse carrier rockets in the future,” said a report by the Korean Central News Agency.
A day earlier, Kim said the spy satellite would provide “real-time information” on the movements of “the aggression troops of the U.S. imperialism and its vassal forces” in the region. None of the reports said when such a launch would occur.
North Korea had not conducted an ICBM launch since 2017, during the height of tensions between Kim and former U.S. President Donald Trump. A year earlier, North Korea had attempted to launch a satellite. The United States and its allies view North Korean satellite launches as thinly disguised tests of long-range missile technology banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions.
A satellite launch would dramatically raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula. On Thursday, conservative former prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol was declared the winner of South Korea’s presidential election. Yoon has promised a much more forceful approach to North Korea.