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North Korea’s latest missile test went more than 10 times higher than the space station

This could really ratchet up US-North Korea tensions.

Japan Reacts To North's Latest Nuclear Test
A pedestrian walks past a monitor showing an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a news program reporting on North Korea's sixth nuclear test on September 3, 2017, in Tokyo.
Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

North Korea launched its likely third intercontinental ballistic missile test around 3:17 am local time on Wednesday, signaling an end to a two-month pause in its missile testing that could bring tensions between Washington and Pyongyang back to dangerous levels.

The Pentagon confirmed the test went straight up about 2,800 miles into space, which is the highest missile test in North Korean history — going more than ten times higher than the International Space Station. The second-highest test was on July 28 and went up about 2,300 miles.

The Pentagon also said the missile traveled around 620 miles eastward and landed in the Sea of Japan in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Japanese media outlet NHK reports that the missile flew for about 50 minutes. All of that combined indicates North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile. The test didn’t threaten the US or any of its allies, according to the Pentagon.

“North Korea has been developing its nuclear weapons at a faster-than-expected pace,“ South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told reporters in Seoul. “We cannot rule out the possibility that North Korea could announce its completion of a nuclear force within one year.”

The South Korean military said it will conduct a “precision strike” missile exercise in response to the launch. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said North Korean missile launches “cannot be tolerated.” The UN Security Council will meet tomorrow at 4:30 pm to discuss ways to respond to the tests.

David Wright, a missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, writes that the missile could travel around 8,100 miles if it were launched at a standard trajectory. That’s enough to hit the entire United States — including Washington, DC. But Wright also noted the missile’s ability to reach America also depends on the weight of the payload, or the bomb on top of the projectile.

But other experts warn Pyongyang may soon overcome that obstacle. “If North Korea hasn't already mastered the required technologies, on its current testing and development pace it will likely do so soon,” Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, told me.

“They want us to know they can hit the Eastern Seaboard,” Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT, tweeted after the launch. “It’s real folks.”

This is North Korea’s 15th missile launch this year; the last one, on September 15, flew over Japan, which prompted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to issue a forceful statement: “We need to let North Korea realize that if they keep taking this path, they will have no bright future.”

Four days later, President Donald Trump gave a speech at the United Nations where he said America would have “no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” if it continued to improve its missile and nuclear program. “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” Trump continued, using his nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

And just last week, Trump put North Korea on the state sponsors of terrorism list, slapping crippling sanctions on Pyongyang. It’s possible that this launch is in retaliation for that action.

In a statement on the provocation, Trump said,“I will only tell you we will take care of it,” and it is a “situation we will handle.” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said North Korea can now has the ability to “hit everywhere in the world.”

US officials want to end the standoff preferably through diplomatic negotiations, where Pyongyang agrees to give up its nuclear weapons. But as my colleague Zack Beauchamp has reported, most experts think North Korea won’t give up its bombs because the regime feels its nuclear arsenal is the only thing deterring countries, especially the US, from overthrowing it.

A missile launch this time of the year is rare for North Korea

Shooting a missile in the last three months of the year is very odd for North Korea, as the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies chart below shows.

North Korea’s nuclear capable missile tests by quarter.
Forbes/CNS North Korea Missile Test Database.

Experts told me last week that they didn’t expect any more North Korean tests this year. The country is devoting resources toward its harvest season, weather conditions are poor in the winter, and it wants to save weapons for the Olympics in February, which will take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea — only 60 miles from the inter-Korean border.

But perhaps Kim is trying to make a statement by breaking this years-long trend.

What’s left now is to see how the White House responds to the provocation. If the past is any guide, Trump will have some harsh words for North Korea.