North Korea’s successful test firing of a long-range missile on Tuesday is a major step in Pyongyang’s ability to hit U.S. cities with nuclear-tipped missiles fired from hard-to-find mobile launchers, U.S. officials and private specialists said.
"This test has important implications for North Korea’s other missile program—its mobile ICBM that can hit the United States," said a U.S. intelligence official.
North Korea launched what U.S. officials assessed to be a space launcher similar to the Taepodong-2 strategic missile, last fired in April. North Korean state-run media said the launcher placed a weather satellite in orbit.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado said in a statement that U.S. missile warning systems tracked the launch of a "North Korean missile" at 7:49 p.m. on Tuesday.
"Initial indications are that the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea," the statement said. "The second stage was assessed to fall into the Philippine Sea. Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit."
NORAD said the missile or related debris was assessed to pose no threat to North America.
President Barack Obama had no comment on the launch and a White House statement condemning the launch as a threat to regional stability was announced by a spokesman for the National Security Council.
The launch highlights the failure of the administration in giving China the lead role in seeking to rein in North Korea, a rogue state that has helped covert nuclear programs in Syria and is working with Iran to develop long-range missiles.
U.S. appeals for China to prevent North Korea from conducting the missile test were ignored. A senior Chinese official was in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, shortly before the launch.
A U.S. official said that in the past North Korea coupled its missile tests with underground nuclear tests, raising concerns that a third nuclear test could be carried out.
North Korea also employed strategic deception with the latest launch of what the reclusive communist state called a satellite launch, in an apparent effort to play down the military program.
The North Koreans erroneously put out word two days ago that unspecified technical problems had delayed the test launch.
Instead the launch took place one day after the start of the announced time window of Dec. 10 to Dec. 22.
Analysts believe the North Koreans sought to deceive the United States about the test by announcing the delay. The Pentagon activated its missile defense system involving space sensors and ships in the region equipped with SM-3 anti-missile interceptors that could have shot down the missile if it was deemed a threat to regional allies like Japan or to U.S. military bases in the region.
North Korea revealed it had a new long-range missile that was spotted earlier this year during a military parade in Pyongyang carried on a Chinese-made mobile missile launcher.
The new road-mobile ICBM represents a much more serious strategic threat and has been identified in both intelligence reports and in letters from Congress to the administration.
"The implications are that if this long-range missile test was successful, it means the North Koreans are closer to have a road-mobile strategic missile capable of targeting the United States," the intelligence official said.
The Obama administration condemned the launch but indicated it would do little more than seek another United Nations resolution critical of the communist state.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that the missile firing was "highly provocative and a threat to regional security and a direct violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874."
"It is highly regrettable that North Korea chose to take this course in flagrant violation of its international obligations," she said. "It is only going to serve to further isolate the North Korean regime; it's not going to do anything to help the poor, suffering North Korean people. It's only going to further impoverish them."
Nuland said the administration would work with regional partners to "take appropriate action."
Bruce E. Bechtol, an specialist on North Korea, said it is not clear how far along the new North Korean mobile ICBM has progressed.
"Obviously, having an ICBM that can be launched from a [transporter-erector launcher] is not a big deal, it is the big deal," Bechtol said in an email. "As long as we have warning time to take out any ICBM launch, as we do with their currently proven platform, it is much less of a threat to us."
The current missile that was test fired was observed for weeks in advance as it was fueled and its stages were stacked in preparation. Such preparation allows for preemptively knocking out the missile prior to launch.
However, North Korea’s road-mobile ICBM can be hidden in sheds and tunnels before being very rapidly launched, making preemptive strikes on it very difficult.
Richard Fisher, a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the administration must pressure China to prevent future North Korean launches.
"China has been involved in North Korean missile programs from the 1970s and facilitated the shipment of Scud technology," Fisher said.
The missile fired Tuesday is different from North Korea’s mobile ICBM deployed on a Chinese launcher.
However, "much of the technology that would go into the mobile ICBM is the same" as the launch-pad based missile, he said.
Fisher also said reports that Iranian missile technicians were present for the North Korean launch are troubling and reveal that Tehran is helping North Korea and probably gaining test data for its long-range missile program.
Fisher also said the administration should have done more.
"For a missile program that is already declared illegal by the United Nations, why wasn’t the United States leading a coalition of Japan and South Korea to shoot this thing down?" Fisher asked.
"There is an urgent need for a diplomatic, economic, and political response to this emerging North Korean and Chinese-assisted nuclear missile threats."
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Mike Turner (R., Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, said the missile launch shows North Korea’s commitment to "developing weapons of mass destruction to threaten the United States and its allies."
"More concerning is that the Kim regime illegally continues to develop nuclear weapons," Turner said. "Together, these behaviors should serve as a warning to both the administration, and the international community, that a renewed effort must be undertaken to halt these destabilizing ambitions."
Turner said the launch also argued for bolstering U.S. missile defenses, instead of cutting them as the administration is doing.
"It would be the height of irresponsibility to simply ignore the stated goals of the North Korean regime, and leave the American people and our allies open to attack," Turner said.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.) said the long-range missile "threatens the U.S. and its allies, undermines stability in the Pacific and violates multiple international accords."
"This provocative act is heightened by the regime’s ongoing development of nuclear weapons," McKeon said. "The regime’s actions highlight the importance of the U.S. deploying a capable national missile defense program, which regrettably has been subject to severe and unwarranted cuts in recent years."
Israel, in the recent conflict against Hamas, showed that "missile defenses are proven and vital to national security in the 21st century," McKeon said, adding that he would work for increased missile defense funding and more capable systems.