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Editorial: Ascertaining North Korea's missile capabilities an urgent task

North Korea has yet again fired a missile toward the Sea of Japan. The May 14 launch appeared to be timed to coincide with the inauguration of the new administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and the opening of an international conference in China.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has given the order to continue conducting missile tests. The stance of going ahead with nuclear and missile development without regard for the international situation surrounding his country deserves harsh criticism.

One fact that cannot be overlooked is Pyongyang's boasting of the technological advancements in its mid- to long-range ballistic missiles, which it says it has completely overhauled. According to North Korea's announcement on the launch, the missile flew to an altitude of over 2,100 kilometers, and landed 787 kilometers away. It was sent on a lofted trajectory with a higher altitude than that of previous launches, which restrains the distance it travels. The missile traveled higher and further than the Musudan mid-range ballistic missile North Korea launched on a similar path in June last year. It is believed that if the latest missile were sent on a regular flight course, Guam would fall completely within its target range. Missiles launched on a lofted trajectory fall faster to the Earth from space, and it becomes harder to intercept them with missile defense systems.

North Korea also stressed that it has improved its warheads so they can withstand re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. This is another fact that cannot be overlooked.

Both Japan and the United States believe it is possible that North Korea has created a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a missile. However, officials suspect the North has not yet acquired the technology that would make it possible for a nuclear warhead to re-enter the atmosphere.

Doubts remain over North Korea's ability to confirm its technological progress when firing missiles over the sea, where it is not possible to retrieve the warhead. But considering Pyongyang's obsession with missile development, it is possible some level of advancement has been seen.

Since last year, North Korea has repeated experiments launching more than one missile at the same time. Launching multiple missiles simultaneously makes missile defense harder.

Within the ranks of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, some lawmakers have begun to stress that with current limits to missile interception, Japan should possess the ability to strike enemy bases. However, officials should refrain from hastily moving their discussion outside the bounds of a defense-only policy without ascertaining the situation. First and foremost, it is necessary to calmly analyze North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities.

At the same time, officials should confirm anew that collaboration between Japan, the United States and South Korea is fundamental in formulating policy toward North Korea.

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