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‘Self-Restraint’ Is Only Thing Stopping War in Korea, U.S. General Says

SEOUL, South Korea — The top American general in South Korea said Wednesday that self-restraint was all that kept the United States and South Korea from going to war with North Korea, as the South’s defense minister indicated that the North’s first intercontinental ballistic missile had the potential to reach Hawaii.

The unusually blunt warning, from Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the commander of American troops based in Seoul, came a day after North Korea said it successfully tested the Hwasong-14, its first intercontinental ballistic missile.

Washington and its allies confirmed that the weapon was an ICBM and condemned the test as a violation of United Nations resolutions and a dangerous escalation of tensions.

Although doubt remained whether North Korea had cleared all the technical hurdles to make the Hwasong-14 a fully functional ICBM, the launching prompted the United States and South Korea to conduct a rare joint missile exercise off the east coast of South Korea on Wednesday. The drill involved firing an undisclosed number of ballistic missiles into the sea.

“Self-restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war,” said General Brooks, referring to the 1953 cease-fire that halted but never officially ended the Korean War. “As this alliance missile live-fire shows, we are able to change our choice when so ordered by our alliance national leaders.

“It would be a grave mistake for anyone to believe anything to the contrary.”

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea asked President Trump on Tuesday night to endorse the joint exercise, insisting that the allies needed to respond to the North’s provocation with “more than statements,” Mr. Moon’s office said.

The South Korean military said the missiles, which had a range of about 185 miles, were fired to test their ability to launch “a precision strike at the enemy leadership” in case of war. The military did not say how far the missiles traveled.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said on Wednesday that Japan and the United States had agreed to take “specific actions to improve our defense systems and our ability to deter North Korea.”

Mr. Suga did not say what those actions were, but a spokesman for the Defense Ministry said the government was considering buying ballistic missile defense systems from the United States.

Japan is considering Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, a system that the United States recently deployed in South Korea, the spokesman said, as well as another known as Aegis Ashore, which is similar to those that Japan already deploys aboard naval destroyers.

The Japanese news media has reported that the government was also discussing buying Tomahawk or other cruise missiles, which would give Japan the ability to strike North Korea.

Yasushi Kojima, the Defense Ministry spokesman, denied those reports, which would face strong opposition in Japan. But an American official familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the purchase of cruise missiles was being discussed.

North Korea remained defiant on Wednesday. Its leader, Kim Jong-un, said that the missile test was intended to “slap the American bastards in their face” and was a Fourth of July “gift package” for the “Yankees.”

The North Korean missile, launched at a steep angle, flew a horizontal distance of only 578 miles but reached an altitude of more than 1,700 miles, according to North Korean, South Korean and Japanese officials.

Speaking to the South Korean National Assembly on Wednesday, the defense minister, Han Min-koo, said that the Hwasong-14, if launched on a standard trajectory, could have a range of 4,350 to 4,970 miles, enough to hit Alaska and possibly Hawaii.

Analysts had said on Tuesday that the missile appeared to be capable of striking Alaska. Hawaii is farther, about 4,780 miles from Kusong, the North Korean town where the missile was fired.

A ballistic missile is considered an ICBM when its range is greater than 5,500 kilometers, or about 3,420 miles, according to military analysts.

But Mr. Han said although the Hwasong-14 was developed as an intercontinental missile, it was still too early to conclude whether North Korea had mastered long-range missile technology, especially the re-entry capability that allows an ICBM warhead to survive the intense heat and destruction of its outer shell as it plunges from space through the earth’s atmosphere.

On Wednesday, North Korea said the test showed that it had mastered the technology of operating and separating the missile’s two propulsive stages, and guiding the warhead to its target in the waters west of Japan. The warhead proved structurally safe during “the harshest atmospheric re-entry environment,” the government said, according to KCNA, the North Korean news agency.

But Mr. Han said that the real test was whether the warhead “performed its military function” after it re-entered the atmosphere.

“Even if we have more time to analyze, it’s hard to say that North Korea has succeeded in the re-entry technology,” he said.

North Korea carried the missile to its test site on a 16-wheel truck, believed to have been imported from China and reconfigured for military purposes. But the missile was launched from a platform, indicating that the country had not developed the ability to launch the missile directly from the vehicle, South Korean officials said. A missile fired from a vehicle is harder to counter because it requires less time to prepare to launch, they said.

North Korea also said its missile was capable of carrying a “large-sized heavy nuclear warhead.” Some analysts say that North Korea is probably still years away from developing nuclear warhead small and light enough to fit into a long-range rocket that could reach the continental United States.

If North Korea successfully develops an ICBM, it would drastically change strategic calculations by the United States and its allies, analysts said. Such a missile would give decision makers in Washington reason to pause before deciding to strike the country, they said.

“This new tier complements North Korea’s well-developed escalatory posture towards its neighbors,” Gabriel Dominguez and Neil Gibson, analysts affiliated with IHS Markit, said in a commentary. “The Communist country is already able to field conventional, chemical and, possibly, nuclear weapons against Seoul and Tokyo. As a result, a danger of increased North Korean military confidence is that it raises the risk of increased belligerence.”

The United States secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, issued a warning that any country hosting North Korean guest workers or providing any economic or military benefits to the North was “aiding and abetting a dangerous regime.”