Seoul: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un claimed he could strike the entire continental US after test-firing the regime’s second intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) within a month.

Friday’s unusual late-night launch drew condemnation from the US and its allies, with the top American general calling his South Korean counterpart to discuss a potential military response. President Donald Trump said the test was a reckless and dangerous action, saying in a White House statement the US “will take all necessary steps" to protect its territory.

“We have demonstrated our ability to fire our intercontinental ballistic rocket at any time and place and that the entire US territory is within our shooting range," the state-run Korean Central News Agency said on Saturday, citing Kim. It said the test was part of the “final verification" of the Hwasong-14 missile’s technical capabilities, including its maximum range.

The ICBM test, which follows the first launch on 4 July, raises tensions between the world’s major powers, with the US accusing China and Russia of providing Kim cover to pursue his nuclear ambitions. Trump has previously expressed frustration at the pace of China’s efforts to rein in its neighbour and ally, which it supports with food and fuel sales.

While US lawmakers have voted to send Trump legislation that would impose new sanctions on North Korea as well as Russia and Iran, the United Nations Security Council has struggled to reach agreement on potentially tighter penalties on Pyongyang.

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“As the principal economic enablers of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development program, China and Russia bear unique and special responsibility for this growing threat to regional and global stability," US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said in a statement on Friday night.

While the US seeks a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, Tillerson said, “we will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea nor abandon our commitment to our allies and partners in the region."

The latest test showed North Korea’s progress in developing a missile capable of hitting US cities such as Denver or Chicago, according to Melissa Hanham, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California. Initial data suggested that if such a projectile were launched toward the US, it could travel about 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles).

“It’s getting close to New York," Hanham said by email.

Re-entry capability

US officials now believe North Korea will be able to launch a nuclear-capable ICBM as early as next year, the Washington Post reported this week, before Friday’s launch. After the 4 July ICBM test, South Korea cast doubt on whether Kim had acquired the necessary re-entry capability so that the missile could survive the heat of returning to Earth’s atmosphere.

Kim’s isolated regime has said its nuclear program is designed to prevent an attack on North Korea. Trump rejected those claims, saying it had the “opposite effect."

“By threatening the world, these weapons and tests further isolate North Korea, weaken its economy, and deprive its people," Trump said.

US Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed “military response options" in a phone call with his South Korean counterpart, his spokesman said in an emailed statement that didn’t elaborate on those options.

While Trump hasn’t ruled out a military response, Dunford warned in June that an armed conflict with North Korea would leave the millions of residents in Seoul, South Korea’s capital, to face casualties “unlike anything we’ve seen in 60 or 70 years." Still, this month he told a security conference in Colorado that “what’s unimaginable to me" is allowing the capability for “a nuclear weapon to land in Denver, Colorado."

Missile shield

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office said in a statement that he’d ordered a show of force in response to North Korea’s actions. Hours later, the US and South Korean militaries said they fired long-range precision-guided tactical missiles into South Korean territorial waters to reinforce the alliance’s deep-strike capability.

Moon also called for talks with the US to consider the deployment of more Thaad missile-defence launchers to South Korea, an apparent shift from a previous decision to put the program on ice pending an environmental impact study. Pyongyang’s missile launches have undermined Moon’s early attempts to engage with North Korea via proposals to meet with Kim and discuss a peace treaty.

The Pentagon said the missile tested on Friday flew 1,000 kilometers, while South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said it reached an altitude of about 3,700 kilometers — almost 1,000 kilometers higher than the first test. Japan said the missile flew for about 45 minutes — six minutes longer than previously — and landed in its exclusive economic zone.

Yonhap reported that Friday’s test was the first time North Korea had launched a missile from Jagang, a province north of Pyongyang that shares a border with China.

While Beijing has condemned Kim’s recent actions it has also been cautious about squeezing too hard given concern it could spark a messy collapse of his regime and a refugee crisis on China’s border. It also worries that such a development could lead to a beefed-up US military presence in the area.

“Pyongyang has once again made it clear that they are operating on their own timetable," Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, said by email.

“My guess — and when it comes to North Korea we’re all guessing — is that they are waiting for the next sanctions resolution, which they will then say ‘forces’ them to accelerate their program and we will finally have our much-anticipated next nuclear test." Bloomberg

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