North Korea has warned that it can test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at any time from any location chosen by its dictator Kim Jong-un, blaming American hostility for its arms development.
The stark threat adds to boasts made by Kim Jong-un in a speech on New Year’s Day that the country had reached the final stage of preparation to test-fire an ICBM.
The speech hailed North Korea’s progress in 2016 in testing both missiles and nuclear weapons, adding to international fears that the repressive state is making strides towards its stated goal of developing a weapons system capable of hitting the US mainland with a nuclear weapon.
The latest salvo appears to have been timed to coincide with the reclusive leader’s birthday celebrations. The supreme commander is believed to have turned 33, although his true age has not been revealed.
“The ICBM will be launched any time and anywhere determined by the supreme headquarters of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea),” the foreign ministry in the North’s capital, Pyongyang, announced through its state media wire, KCNA.
"The US is wholly to blame for pushing the DPRK to have developed an ICBM as it has desperately resorted to anachronistic policy hostile toward the DPRK for decades to encroach upon its sovereignty and vital rights,” KCNA reported.
Ash Carter, the US Defence Secretary, hit back, vowing to shoot down any North Korean missile that flies towards the US or its allies.
Carter, who leaves office later this month, described Pyongyang’s missile programmes as a “serious threat to us” in an interview with American network NBC, pledging that the US would strike any missile "if it were coming towards our territory or the territory of our friends and allies."
Increased threats from the North have prompted South Korea to seek closer cooperation with the US. On Sunday Seoul dispatched its National Security Office chief, Kim Kwan-jin, to Washington DC for talks with the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
But his visit comes amid great political turmoil in South Korea, where an ongoing impeachment trial of the country’s President, Park Geun-hye, has left a leadership vacuum at a time of growing regional instability.
Seoul faces not only increased provocations from its northern neighbour, but also frosty relations with China over a planned US missile defence system on South Korean territory, and a diplomatic spat with Japan over historical grievances about Tokyo’s wartime sexual slavery of Korean women.