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North Korea marks Fourth of July with dramatic test of missile potentially capable of reaching U.S.

July 4, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
North Korea celebrated July 4th with appears to be its most advanced test in its long pursuit of a nuclear weapon. It's estimated that their latest missile could have traveled past Anchorage, Alaska, on a flatter trajectory, though that doesn't mean it could deliver a nuclear weapon. Special correspondent Nick Schifrin reports.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It was North Korea’s own version of fireworks for the Fourth of July. The communist state today fired off a new missile that may someday put the United States within range of its weapons.

Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

NICK SCHIFRIN: On this July 4, North Korea declared independence from what it called American nuclear threats.

WOMAN (through interpreter): The scientists and technicians have successfully test-fired the newly developed intercontinental ballistic missile.

NICK SCHIFRIN: In Pyongyang, North Koreans celebrated what appears to be its most advanced test in its long pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The missile flew for about 40 minutes, almost straight up, reaching an altitude of more than 1,500 miles, and came straight down 580 miles away in the Sea of Japan.

On a flatter trajectory, it’s estimated the missile could have traveled as far as 4,000 miles, past Anchorage, Alaska, says scientist David Wright.

DAVID WRIGHT, Union Of Concerned Scientists: If they shoot it essentially straight up in the air, it goes very, very high and comes down not very far away. If they then flatten it out a little bit, it uses all that speed to go a much longer distance.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But the test doesn’t mean North Korea can deliver a nuclear weapon. It’s not known whether it’s mastered required miniaturization or guidance and separation systems that can take years to develop.

DAVID WRIGHT: As you go to longer and longer ranges, there are just much higher stresses, vibrations, the acceleration, so there are a lot of forces on this nuclear warhead. We don’t know if they have actually done the final steps to have a warhead that they could actually put into one of these long-range missiles and have it work the way it’s supposed to.

NICK SCHIFRIN: As president-elect, Donald Trump vowed not to let today’s event ever happen. As president, he tried to push China to pressure North Korea, but he recently admitted that failed.

Today, he addressed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, tweeting: “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all.”

But, today, China didn’t show willingness to apply more pressure.

GENG SHUANG, Foreign Ministry Spokesman, China (through interpreter): We hope all sides can remain calm and exercise restraint, ease the tense situation on the peninsula.

NICK SCHIFRIN: And, in Moscow, Chinese and Russian Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin jointly called for the U.S. and North Korea to abandon long-held positions in order to calm the peninsula.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): We agreed to actively promote parallel freezing of nuclear missile activities of North Korea and large-scale joint military drills of the U.S. and South Korea.

NICK SCHIFRIN: North Korea has exploited the July 4 holiday before, in 2006 and 2009. But this is their most dramatic test, and their momentum is increasing. They have now launched more missiles in the last three years than in the last three decades.

DAVID WRIGHT: I don’t see a roadblock to them being able to continue this process until they got a missile that really had the ability to reach the lower 48 states. I think it’s just a matter of time until they reach that point.

NICK SCHIFRIN: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Nick Schifrin.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We will look at the implications of the North Korean test right after the news summary.