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North Korea confirms longest-range missile launch since 2017

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A composite image released by North Korean state media shows the Sunday launch of a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile and images of the earth taken from a camera on its warhead. The launch was the biggest weapons test by Pyongyang since 2017.  Photo by KCNA/EPA-EFE
A composite image released by North Korean state media shows the Sunday launch of a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile and images of the earth taken from a camera on its warhead. The launch was the biggest weapons test by Pyongyang since 2017.  Photo by KCNA/EPA-EFE

SEOUL, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- North Korea successfully test-fired a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile over the weekend, state media confirmed Monday, marking the secretive state's seventh launch of the month and its biggest weapons test since 2017.

The launch, which was conducted Sunday morning, "confirmed the accuracy, security and effectiveness of the operation of the Hwasong 12-type weapon system under production," a report in state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

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South Korea's military detected the missile Sunday and said it had been fired at a steep angle, traveling roughly 497 miles at a top altitude of 1,243 miles before splashing into the waters of the East Sea between Korea and Japan.

The KCNA report said that the launch was "conducted by the highest-angle launch system ... in consideration of the security of neighboring countries."

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The missile also took images of the earth from space with a camera installed on its warhead, KCNA said.

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Analysts estimate that the Hwasong-12 has a range of roughly 2,800 miles, putting the U.S. territory of Guam within reach, and North Korea has claimed that it is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

It was last fired in September 2017 amid sky-high tensions and a war of words with Washington. After then-U.S. President Donald Trump warned that any North Korean attack would be met with "fire and fury," Pyongyang said it was considering launching four Hwasong-12 missiles at Guam in a "plan of enveloping fire."

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North Korea would go on to test an intercontinental ballistic missile that it said could reach the continental United States with a nuclear warhead in November 2017.

A period of rapprochement followed soon after, leading to three face-to-face meetings between Kim and Trump as North Korea declared a moratorium on nuclear weapons and long-range missile tests.

However, amid long-stalled negotiations with Washington and continuing international sanctions, Kim suggested last week that North Korea was ready to lift the moratorium in order to to face "the hostile policy and military threat by the U.S."

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Sunday that the North's launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile "is close to canceling the moratorium declaration," according to a statement from the presidential Blue House after an emergency meeting of the National Security Council.

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Moon said the pattern of missile launches was "similar to the period of heightened tensions in 2017" and called on Pyongyang to "stop creating tension and pressure and respond to proposals for dialogue from the international community."

January has been North Korea's busiest month of weapons tests ever under Kim, with launches that include an alleged hypersonic weapons system, train-fired ballistic missiles and long-range cruise missiles.

On Jan. 12, the Biden administration leveled sanctions on six North Korean individuals, along with a Russian individual and company, over ties to Pyongyang's illicit weapons program. The United States later led a call for the U.N. Security Council to blacklist five of the North Koreans, but the proposal was blocked by Russia and China.

Washington has in recent days tried to send a signal that the North Korea threat remains a priority despite a host of pressing foreign policy issues, including the Russia-Ukraine crisis and China's military provocations against Taiwan.

During an appearance on Fox News Sunday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the United States was "laser focused on the challenges to the Korean Peninsula coming out of Pyongyang."

"We told Pyongyang, we're willing to sit down without precondition to have those kinds of dialogues, but obviously, Kim Jong Un wants to go a different way," Kirby said. "So we have to make sure that we're ready militarily on the peninsula and in the region."

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