PYONYANG – North Korea on Tuesday fired a midrange ballistic missile designed to carry a nuclear payload that flew over northern Hokkaido island Japan and splashed into the northern Pacific Ocean, officials said.
The aggressive launch over the territory of a close U.S. ally sent a clear message of defiance as Washington and South Korea conduct war games nearby.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan conferred by telephone over the latest missile test and how to response.
The White House said Tuesday that the leaders agreed that North Korea poses “a grave and growing direct threat” to the United States, Japan, South Korea and countries around the world.
“President Trump and Prime Minister Abe committed to increasing pressure on North Korea, and doing their utmost to convince the international community to do the same,” the White House said.
Abe said in a statement that “Japan’s and the U.S. positions are totally at one.”
The prime minister added that both nations were in “total agreement” that an emergency meeting was needed at the U.N. Security Council to step up pressure on North Korea after what he called an unprecedented threat.
He also said Trump expressed his “strong commitment” to defending Japan.
North Korea’s latest test came weeks after the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to impose tough new sanctions against the government in Pyongyang.
The unannounced launch, conducted in the midst of joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, prompted Japanese authorities to warn local citizens to take cover and shattered a brief interlude of calm in a year of repeated provocations from a country whose rapid pursuit of deadly new weaponry has earned it the world’s fury.
North Korea had earlier warned that it has drafted plans for a multi-missile strike on waters off Guam. But it has not made good on that threat over the course of several weeks, prompting the White House to praise its restraint. U.S. President Donald Trump last week said of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, “I respect the fact that he is starting to respect us.”
Mr. Kim did not allow that sentiment to linger long. Flying a missile over Japan sent a deliberate message that its “Guam threat could be turned into a reality,” South Korea’s intelligence service told local lawmakers, according to Rep. Lee Wan-young, who serves with the opposition Liberty Korea Party.
Analysts believe the missile used was a Hwasong-12, the same type of missile the country said it could fire at Guam.
Pyongyang has once again dared Mr. Trump into a harsh response, after the U.S. President earlier vowed a reprisal of “fire and fury” against any threats to American soil. On Tuesday morning, Mr. Trump issued a statement saying, “The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear: this regime has signaled its contempt for its neighbours, for all members of the United Nations, and for minimum standards of acceptable international behavior.
“Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table,” the Trump statement said.
“The U.S. should know that it can neither browbeat the DPRK with any economic sanctions and military threats and blackmail nor make the DPRK flinch from the road chosen by itself,” the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s official newspaper wrote. North Korea calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or the DPRK.
Mr. Kim has now launched more missiles than the combined total fired under the command of his father and grandfather.
China’s foreign ministry, which has long called for calm around North Korea, issued a bleak warning, with spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying the situation was “now at a tipping point approaching a crisis.”
The Tuesday missile launch also allowed North Korea to call a bluff from a key U.S. ally in the region.
Within hours of the test, Mr. Trump and Mr. Abe spoke on the phone and agreed to increase pressure on North Korea, Mr. Abe said.
The U.S. and South Korea also agreed to “sternly” respond at the UN Security Council, the foreign ministry in Seoul said. South Korea carried out a live-fire bombing drill Tuesday meant to simulate an attack on North Korean leadership.
The North Korean launch “has thrown cold water” on the prospect for talks to resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue, South Korea’s foreign minister told her Japanese counterpart.
That much is not clear.
“The North Koreans do things like this precisely because they think it strengthens deterrence and they will get a better deal when they do decide to talk,” Mr. Lewis said.
The international community, however, will have little choice but to react with harsh measures that could include a new and harsher round of economic sanctions, said Lu Chao, director of the Border Study Institute at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in Shenyang, China.
Firing a missile over Japan demonstrates the rising maturity of North Korea’s missile technology, which is “gradually becoming a threat to the U.S., South Korea and Japan,” he said.
“A distance calculation on this missile makes it obvious that it is close to attaining the distance needed to reach Guam,” he said.
Sources: Yu Mei – Globe and Mail, Darlene Superville – Associated Press