North Korea shooting a missile into the sea off Japan might not seem like a huge step toward striking the United States, but missile experts and U.S. military officials would beg to differ. On Tuesday, the isolated, small Communist nation announced that it launched what turns out to have been an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) 578 miles east in the direction of Japan. The test was reportedly a success and could mean that the country has working missiles that can reach as far as Alaska, meaning North Korea could be one step closer to striking the United States.
This is worrisome, even though the North Korean claim that the missile can "reach anywhere in the world" is surely a stretch. Still, though, this is a big step for the North Koreans. The nation has launched 10 missiles this year but none seen as having capability of reaching the United States. Now, Alaska is arguably within range.
U.S. Pacific Command confirmed to Fox News that the missile was in the air for 37 minutes and reached a maximum height of 1,500 miles — significantly higher than the Space Station, which orbits at just under 250 miles altitude. Experts interviewed by The New York Times made it sound like a "very big deal." Jeffrey Lewis, East Asia Nonproliferation Program Director at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told The Times:
It looks like North Korea tested an ICBM. Even if this is a 7,000-km-range missile, a 10,000-km-range missile that can hit New York isn’t far off.
Even before the test launch, U.S. officials seemed to be worried. "The threat is much more immediate now," National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said prior to the launch. "So it's clear we can't repeat the same failed approach of the past. The President has directed us to not do that and to prepare a range of options, including a military option, which nobody wants to take."
President Trump himself tried to send a similar message on Sunday when he spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump told his counterpart that the United States was prepared to go alone in furthering the response to North Korea's missile testing. That doesn't mean military strikes, of course, but could include things like putting Chinese banks on sanctions lists if they do business with North Korea.
Trump of course tweeted about the missile test issue early on Tuesday. "Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!" Trump wrote.
In the meantime, the U.S. military is considering touting its missile defense systems. State Department and Defense Department sources told CNN that a "measured response" could include communicating the system readiness of missile defense systems on ships in the Pacific, and based on land in South Korea and Japan. Moving more troops, aircraft, or ships to the area is also on the table.
Hopefully that's enough to keep North Korea's program in check.