North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile on Friday that, for the first time, appeared capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States, according to experts — a milestone that American presidents have long declared the United States could not tolerate.
The launch, the second of an intercontinental missile in 24 days, did not answer the question of whether the North has mastered all the technologies necessary to deliver a nuclear weapon to targets in the lower 48 states. But just a few days ago, the Defense Intelligence Agency warned the Trump administration that the North would probably be able to do so within a year, and Friday’s test left little doubt that Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is speeding toward that goal.
The missile launched on Friday remained aloft for roughly 47 minutes, according to American, South Korean and Japanese officials, following a steep trajectory that took it roughly 2,300 miles into space. It then turned and arced sharply down into the sea near the northernmost Japanese island, Hokkaido.
If that trajectory had been flattened out — a step the North may have avoided for fear of provoking an American military response — the missile could have put a number of major American cities at risk, experts say. The Pentagon was quick to declare that the “North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) determined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America.” That statement, while true, ignored the potential long-term implications of the launch.
“Depending on how heavy a warhead it carries, this latest North Korean missile would easily reach the West Coast of the United States with a range of 9,000 to 10,000 kilometers,” or 5,600 to 6,200 miles, said Kim Dong-yub, a defense analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul. “With this missile, North Korea leaves no doubt that its missile has a range that covers most of the United States.”
The United States has gone to extraordinary lengths — feeding flawed partsinto the North Korean production system and mounting internet attacks to cause test failures — to slow North Korea’s missile program. A few hours before the test, Congress approved the latest round of sanctions to squeeze the North.
While there have been some tactical successes, they have not stopped the weapons program. And Mr. Kim, determined to show the United States that he would not waver from his goal, has stepped up the pace of testing.
In a break with past practice, the White House turned out a statement in the name of President Trump, but it made no mention of the distance the missile flew or its implications. It read like many of President Barack Obama’s and President George W. Bush’s statements at similar moments.
“By threatening the world, these weapons and tests further isolate North Korea, weaken its economy, and deprive its people,” Mr. Trump said. “The United States will take all necessary steps to ensure the security of the American homeland and protect our allies in the region.”
Mr. Trump hoped to end North Korea’s provocations with the help of China, and he thought he had an agreement with President Xi Jinping to pressure Mr. Kim. But over the past two months, Mr. Trump discovered, as his predecessors did, that the Chinese are more concerned about preventing the collapse of North Korea’s government, and the chaos that would ensue, than they are in trade and energy sanctions that might truly change its behavior.
For Mr. Trump, the launch poses one of the biggest challenges of his presidency. Like Bill Clinton, Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama before him, Mr. Trump declared that the North would not succeed in obtaining a missile that could put American cities at risk. “It won’t happen,” he declared in a Jan. 2 tweet, not long after Mr. Obama warned him that the North would probably pose the most urgent national security threat he would face.
American officials, led by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have been careful not to threaten to carry out a pre-emptive strike on the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities, which Mr. Mattis has warned could reignite the Korean War. Cyberattacks, while more politically palatable, are of uncertain effectiveness. And sanctions have done little.
Now, outside experts said, it has happened. David C. Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an anti-proliferation group in Cambridge, Mass., said in ablog post on Friday that the missile appeared to have an effective range of at least 6,500 miles — putting Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago well within range. He wrote that Boston and New York “may be just within range, and Washington “may be just out of range.”
But such estimates are always subject to uncertainty. North Korea’s aim is famously poor and it is unclear how long it would take the country to build a workable nuclear warhead that can survive re-entry into the atmosphere.
And Dr. Wright cautioned that Western analysts have no idea how much the payload on the missile weighed. “If it was lighter than the actual warhead the missile would carry,” he noted, the calculated ranges for a real warhead would be shorter.
The Pentagon confirmed only that the missile was an ICBM, which means that it was capable of traveling at least 5,500 kilometers, or about 3,400 miles. Pentagon officials said that it was airborne for more than 40 minutes.
Hours after the test, the United States and South Korea launched ballistic missiles off the east coast of the South on Saturday to test their abilities to counter the North. The drill involved the United States Army Tactical Missile System and the South’s Hyunmoo-2 missile.
It was not disclosed how many missiles were launched, but a video released by the United States’ Eighth Army showed three fired from missile-launch vehicles.
The exercise was in direct response to the North Korean missile test, Pentagon officials said.
North Korea conducted its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, on July 4, calling it a “gift package for the Yankees.” South Korean officials said that the July 4 test demonstrated that the missile was capable of reaching Alaska, but that it remained unclear whether the North had the capability of launching a nuclear strike against the contiguous United States.
On Saturday in Seoul, the South Korean military said in a statement the latest test involved “a more advanced ICBM-class missile” than the July 4 launch.
The South Korean military said that Friday’s missile was launched from Jagang Province, a mountainous north-central area of North Korea bordering China, at 11:41 p.m. local time.
South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, called an emergency meeting of his National Security Council and ordered his military to conduct joint ballistic missile tests with the United States military in a “strong show of power,” his office said. Similar missile exercises were held following the North’s July 4 launch.
The growing North Korean threat also prompted Mr. Moon to reverse his decision to halt deployment of an advanced United States missile defense system known as Thaad. In a statement issued early Saturday, he told his military to push ahead with it.
North Korea is a closed society, and the secrecy of its government makes it difficult to tell exactly how far its weapons programs have advanced. But experts believe it is not yet capable of making nuclear warheads suitable for mounting on ICBMs.
South Korean defense officials have said since the July 4 test that it was too early to determine whether North Korea had mastered long-range missile technology, especially re-entry, when a warhead must survive intense heat and the destruction of its outer shell as it plunges through the atmosphere from space.
The North Korean missile test came a day after the United States Senate passed sanctions aimed at deterring North Korea’s missile and nuclear development, as part of a package that also targets Russia and Iran. It is unclear whether Mr. Trump will sign it into law.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of North Korea’s leader. He is Kim Jong-un, not Kim Jung-un.