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With U.S. Focus on Ukraine, North Korea Launches a Powerful New ICBM

SEOUL — North Korea on Thursday launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017, dramatically escalating tensions with the Biden administration at a moment when the world has been gripped by the devastation in Ukraine.

The launch involved what appeared to be North Korea’s most powerful ICBM to date, and marked the end of a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests that the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, announced before embarking on diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump in 2018.

While the new missile did not go far from the coast, its altitude of 3,852 miles — far higher than past tests — appeared to be meant to demonstrate to a weary world that North Korea could flatten the weapon’s trajectory and hit the continental United States with ease.

After Mr. Kim announced the moratorium, Mr. Trump boasted that there was “no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea,” predicting that his unusual relationship with Mr. Kim would lead the country to let go of weapons that might threaten the United States.

Instead, North Korea has spent the intervening years building a more and more sophisticated arsenal, working on nuclear and missile advances even as Mr. Kim wrote flowery letters to Mr. Trump and proposed new meetings and peace initiatives. The North and South have engaged in a quiet arms race on the Korean Peninsula, and North Korea has rarely been as busy with missile tests as it has in the last three months.

The provocation on Thursday was a clear sign that the North did not intend to let the United States and its allies forget about stalled negotiations and international sanctions, even as President Biden arrived in Brussels for talks with NATO and Group of 7 leaders to discuss the war in Ukraine.

In a statement, the White House called the launch “a brazen violation” of U.N. Security Council resolutions and underscored that it had recently released details warning that North Korea might test its new Hwasong-17 ICBM under the guise of a satellite launch. The Hwasong-17, North Korea’s largest known ICBM, was first unveiled during a military parade in October 2020, and components were tested in recent weeks, but the launch on Thursday appears to be the first test of the full missile.

On Friday, the North’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, confirmed that the country successfully launched its Hwasong-17 ICBM from Pyongyang International Airport. Mr. Kim, who watched the test, vowed to continue to strengthen his country’s “nuclear war deterrence” and prepare for a “longstanding confrontation” with the United States, it said.

After a North Korean nuclear test and three ICBM tests in 2017, the United States, China and Russia set aside their differences to impose devastating sanctions that banned all U.N. member countries from importing any of North Korea’s key exports, such as coal, iron ore, fish and textiles. North Korea was also banned from importing more than four million barrels of crude oil for civilian purposes a year.

But with Russia now in the cross hairs of the United States and its allies, Mr. Kim may have sensed a rare opportunity to take advantage of worsening relations between the veto-wielding powers and escalate tension.

“North Korea wanted to test its ICBM while the war is raging in Ukraine,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul. “The relations between the United States and Russia are the worst ever. There is no way Russia is going to cooperate at the U.N. Security Council when the United States wants to impose tough sanctions against North Korea.”

Many questions remained unanswered about North Korea’s long-range missile program, such as whether the country can actually fly its missile on an intercontinental trajectory and whether it has mastered the technology for a “re-entry vehicle,” carrying a warhead, to detach from a missile at high altitude and survive the stresses of diving back into the atmosphere on its way to its target.

The North’s resumption of ICBM tests also raised the specter of Mr. Kim returning to an earlier posture when he threatened to fire ballistic missiles in a “ring of fire” around Guam, home to major American military bases in the Western Pacific.

This year, North Korea has been gearing up to celebrate the 110th birthday of Kim Il-sung, Mr. Kim’s grandfather and the founder of North Korea, in April. Mr. Kim has often pointed to his weapons arsenal as his biggest achievement as a hereditary leader, though his economy remains hobbled by the pandemic and decades of harsh sanctions.

The North Korean launch on Thursday caught South Korea by surprise. The country is in the middle of a transition of power from President Moon Jae-in to the president-elect, Yoon Suk-yeol, who campaigned on a promise to strengthen ties between Seoul and Washington and has even suggested pre-emptive strikes against the North.

After its last ICBM test in 2017, North Korea said it no longer needed nuclear or ICBM tests because its nuclear-tipped missiles could strike any part of the continental United States. Earlier that year, it detonated what it called a thermonuclear bomb — foreign analysts have expressed some doubt about that — in its sixth underground nuclear test. North Korea is the first United States adversary since the Cold War to test both an ICBM and a claimed hydrogen bomb, according to Vipin Narang, an expert on nuclear proliferation at M.I.T.

Since his diplomacy with Mr. Trump ended in 2019 without any agreement on ending sanctions or eliminating the North’s nuclear arsenal, Mr. Kim has vowed to build more diverse and powerful nuclear missiles, and warned that he no longer felt bound by the moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests.

In a resolution adopted in December 2017, the U.N. Security Council stated that, were North Korea to conduct more nuclear or ICBM tests, it would “take action to restrict further” the export of petroleum to the already heavily sanctioned country. But given the current global tensions, Russia and China are unlikely to help Washington introduce any new sanctions.

“There is not much the United States or South Korea can do to punish North Korea,” said Park Won-gon, a North Korea expert at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “If the United States and South Korea scale up their joint military exercise scheduled for next month, North Korea will seize that as a hostile act and as a pretext to escalate tensions further.”

North Korea’s weapons program has been a thorny problem for the past four U.S. presidents. Each approached the country with different incentives and sanctions, but failed to persuade the country to stop building nuclear warheads and missiles.

The latest test showed that, despite crippling sanctions, Mr. Kim remained determined to use nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles as a deterrent, bargaining leverage or both. North Korea could also export its weapons technologies for badly needed cash, said Lee Byong-chul, an expert in nuclear proliferation at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

The new launch was a provocative gambit in the North’s relations with Washington. Since January, North Korea has conducted a spate of shorter-range missile tests, angling to climb up the list of priorities for the Biden administration, which is focused on the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Mr. Biden now faces a difficult choice: take a hard line and risk that North Korea will push the peninsula to the brink of war, or engage with Mr. Kim in what could turn into another round of fruitless negotiations.

So far, Mr. Biden’s approach to North Korea has been closer to that of former President Barack Obama — keeping the door open for dialogue but refusing to offer incentives to bring the North to the table.

The test on Thursday was a bid to demand the Biden administration’s attention, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

“North Korea has been gradually raising tensions this year with a series of missile tests in order to force the United States to return to talks with a better offer but Washington has shown no interest,” said Prof. Yang. “By breaking the ICBM test moratorium, North Korea has put dialogue on the back burner and is reverting to a power-for-power confrontation with the United States.”

He added: “We will see a vicious cycle of North Korea advancing its nuclear capabilities and raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula.”

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