SEOUL, South Korea, Aug 29, (Agencies): In a first, North Korea on Tuesday fired a ballistic missile designed to carry a nuclear payload that flew over Japan and splashed into the northern Pacific Ocean, officials said. The aggressive missile launch — likely the longest ever from North Korea — over the territory of a close US ally sends a clear message of defiance as Washington and Seoul conduct war games nearby.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile traveled around 2,700 kms (1,677 miles) and reached a maximum height of 550 kms (341 miles) as it flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The distance and type of missile tested seemed designed to show that North Korea can back up a threat to target the US territory of Guam, if it chooses to do so, while also establishing a potentially dangerous precedent that could see future missiles flying over Japan.
Any new test worries Washington and its allies because it presumably puts North Korea a step closer to its goal of an arsenal of nuclear missiles that can reliably target the United States. Tuesday’s test, however, looks especially aggressive to Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.
North Korea has conducted launches at an unusually fast pace this year — 13 times, Seoul says — and some analysts believe it could have viable long-range nuclear missiles before the end of Trump’s first term in early 2021.
Seoul says that while North Korea has twice before fired rockets it said were carrying satellites over Japan — in 1998 and 2009 — it has never before used a ballistic missile, which is unambiguously designed for military strikes. North Korea also chose not to fire its most recent missile at a lofted angle, as it did in previous launches to avoid other countries, and Seoul’s spy service said the North launched from an unusual spot: the international airport in its capital, Pyongyang.
The South Korean military was analyzing whether North Korea had launched a Hwasong-12, a new intermediate-range missile that it recently threatened to fire into waters near Guam, which hosts a major US military base that the North considers a threat.
The launch is also another rebuke to Trump, who suggested last week that his tough approach to North Korea, which included threats to unleash “fire and fury,” meant leader Kim Jong Un “is starting to respect us.”
Tuesday’s missile landed nowhere near Guam, but firing a Hwasong-12 so soon after the Guam threat may be a way for North Korea to show it could follow through if it chose to do so. Guam is 3,400 kms (2,110 miles) away from North Korea, but South Korea’s military said the North may have fired the most recent missile at a shorter range.
South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in a closed-door briefing that North Korea fired the missile from an airfield at Pyongyang’s international airport. Some outside observers said launching a road-mobile missile from an airport runway could demostrate the North’s ability to fire its missiles from anywhere in the country. It was not immediately clear what the launch meant for the few civilian flights that use the airport.
The National Intelligence Service also told lawmakers it was unclear whether the missile’s warhead survived atmospheric re-entry, according to the office of Kim Byung-kee, a lawmaker in attendance.
Separately, the spy agency said North Korean leader Kim’s third child was born in February, but provided no other details.
North Korea will no doubt be watching the world’s reaction to see if it can use Tuesday’s flight over Japan as a precedent for future launches.
Trump issued a statement saying that North Korea had signaled its “contempt for its neighbors” and that “All options are on the table” in terms of a US response.
Japanese officials made their usual strongly worded condemnations of the launch.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Russia and the United Arab Emirates urged North Korea on Tuesday to stop its provocations and obey United Nations resolutions, after Pyongyang’s launch of a ballistic missile over Japan.
Speaking in Abu Dhabi, the two ministers offered a forceful warning for Pyongyang, with Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan particularly calling for North Korea to stop its “provocations.”
But what was left unsaid between the two ministers was their own diplomatic and commercial ties to North Korea, with the UAE in particular home to thousands of its workers whose wages help Pyongyang avoid international sanctions.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who is visiting the UAE as part of a three Gulf Arab nation tour over the ongoing diplomatic crisis involving Qatar, avoided discussing that dispute. He instead focused in part on North Korea.
“Regarding North Korea and the missile tests it is conducting, we stick to the resolutions of the UN Security Council and we insist on the fact that our North Korean neighbors should fully respect those resolutions,” Lavrov said. “We base our position on these statements during discussions in the Security Council and will do the same in the session, which as far as we understand is being planned now and which will be dedicated to discussing the last missile launches from North Korea.”
Sheikh Abdullah went further.
“The situation cannot continue to escalate between North Korea on one side and Japan and South Korea on the other,” he said. “North Korea cannot continue to disregard the UN Security Council resolutions and the UN’s call to stop its provocations.”
The remarks by the two, however, did not mention their countries’ commercial ties to Pyongyang.
The EU also on Tuesday denounced North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile which overflew Japan as another breach of its international obligations and a “serious threat” to regional security.
“These actions constitute outright violations of the DPRK’s international obligations, as set out in several UN Security Council Resolutions, and represent a serious threat to international peace and security,” EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.
“The DPRK must comply without delay, fully and unconditionally, with its obligations under all relevant UN Security Council resolutions and refrain from any further provocative action that could increase regional and global tensions,” Mogherini added.
North Korea — the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) — fired a ballistic missile over Japan on Tuesday in a major escalation that triggered global alarm and a furious response from Tokyo which said it was “unprecedented, serious and grave threat”.
The UN Security Council has called an emergency meeting at Tokyo and Washington’s request.
“I express my full support to Japan and the people of Japan in the face of this direct threat,” Mogherini said.
She said the EU, which has imposed a series of sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programmes, would “consider further appropriate response in close consultation with key partners and in line with UN Security Council deliberations.”
Last month, Pyongyang staged two Intercontinental Ballistic Missile tests that appeared to bring much of the US mainland within reach for the first time.
At the time, Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” on the North, as Pyongyang warned it could fire a salvo of missiles towards the US territory of Guam.