North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile came within 10 minutes of a commercial airliner Friday during its descent towards the Sea of Japan.
A U.S. official speaking with ABC News indicated the Hwasong-14 ICBM fell into the waters northwest of Okushiri Island shortly after Air France flight 293 passed the same location. The Boeing 777 was traveling from Tokyo to Paris with 323 people on board.
While the aircraft may have been at a safe distance from the projectile at the moment of impact, North Korea’s refusal to alert surrounding nations to their weapons tests increases the chances of a catastrophic incident.
The Pentagon had already criticized Pyongyang for carrying out an uncoordinated launch following its first ever ICBM test on July 4.
“This missile flew through busy airspace used by commercial airliners,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said at the time. “It flew into space. It landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, and an area that’s used by commercial and fishing vessels. All of this completely uncoordinated.”
Air France denied in a statement to ABC News that North Korea’s missile tests “interfere in any way” with flight paths used by the airline.
“Moreover, in cooperation with the authorities, Air France constantly analyzes potentially dangerous flyover zones and adapts its flight plans accordingly,” the statement added.
Experts warned following Friday’s test that North Korea’s ICBM, which reached an altitude of 3,700 kilometers during its 47 minute flight, showed the capability to reach targets as far away as Chicago and even New York.
High quality video of North Korea’s Hwasong-14 ICBM launch Friday complete with audio pic.twitter.com/ghhdSEM2c4
— Mikael Thalen (@MikaelThalen) July 29, 2017
Footage captured of Friday’s test by a weather camera mounted on a roof in Muroran, Japan, later casted doubts on the re-entry vehicle’s ability to survive the descent back through the earth’s atmosphere.
“At about 20 km above sea level, the RV has become so hot that it begins to glow as its descent is recorded by the camera,” writes Michael Elleman for 38 North. “It continues to slow and its temperature further rises as it approaches impact with the sea.”
The re-entry vehicle eventually began “shedding small radiant objects” before going completely dim at an altitude of roughly 3 to 4 kilometers.
“In short, a reasonable conclusion based on the video evidence is that the Hwasong-14’s re-entry vehicle did not survive during its second test,” Elleman says. “If this assessment accurately reflects reality, North Korea’s engineers have yet to master re-entry technologies and more work remains before Kim Jong Un has an ICBM capable of striking the American mainland.”
Despite the failure, other experts warn that the re-entry vehicle may have survived had the ICBM been launched on a normal trajectory as opposed to a highly lofted angle.
“[T]hese lofted tests stress the RVs a lot more than optimal/min energy trajectories,” Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at MIT, said on Twitter.
North Korea expert Ankit Panda also argued that Pyongyang could still potentially carry out an air burst detonation above a target before the re-entry vehicle becomes compromised.
“[T]he July 4 RV may have survived to 1km altitude; sufficient for 30kt airburst delivery,” Panda tweeted.
Regardless of North Korea’s shortcomings, a recent assessment from the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency shaved two full years off of previous estimates of when Pyongyang would be able to both miniaturize a nuclear device and create a re-entry vehicle capable of protecting the warhead during its trip through the atmosphere.
“The DIA has concluded that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will be able to produce a ‘reliable, nuclear-capable ICBM’ program sometime in 2018, meaning that by next year the program will have advanced from prototype to assembly line, according to officials familiar with the document,” the Washington Post reported.
In response to Friday’s test, the United States flew two supersonic B-1B bombers over the Korean peninsula and staged a joint ballistic missile exercise with South Korea.