North Korea has fired a ballistic missile from its capital Pyongyang that flew over Japan before plunging into the northern Pacific Ocean, in what appeared to be its longest-ever test.
The aggressive test-flight over the territory of a close US ally sent a clear message of defiance as Washington and Seoul conduct war games nearby. Seoul’s joint chiefs of staff said the missile travelled around 1,677 miles and reached a maximum height of 341 miles as it flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
The launch, which seems to be the first to cross over Japan since 2009, will concern a region worried that each new missile test puts the North a step closer towards its goal of an arsenal of nuclear missiles that can reliably target the US.
South Korean officials could not immediately confirm if it was the North’s longest-ever missile test
North Korean missile launches have been happening at an unusually fast pace this year, and some analysts believe the North could have viable long-range nuclear missiles before the end of President Donald Trump’s first term in early 2021.
The South Korean military said it is analysing the launch with the US and has strengthened its monitoring and preparation in case of further actions from North Korea. Analysts speculate the North may have tested a new intermediate-range missile that Pyongyang recently threatened to fire towards the US territory of Guam, which hosts a major military base.
This missile landed nowhere near Guam, which is about 1,550 miles south of Tokyo, but the length of Tuesday’s launch may have been designed for the North to show it could follow through on its threat.
Seoul says the missile was launched from Sunan, which is where Pyongyang’s international airport is, opening the possibility that North Korea launched a road-mobile missile from an airport runway.
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. Japanese officials said there was no damage to ships or anything else reported. Japan’s NHK TV said the missile separated into three parts.
“We will do our utmost to protect people’s lives,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters.
“This reckless act of launching a missile that flies over our country is an unprecedented, serious and important threat.”
Tuesday’s launch comes days after the North fired what was assessed as three short-range ballistic missiles into the sea and a month after its second flight test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which analysts say could reach deep into the US mainland when perfected. It was North Korea’s 13th launch of ballistic missiles this year, said Roh Jae-cheon, spokesman for Seoul’s joint chiefs of staff.
South Korea’s foreign ministry warned that the North will face a “strong response” from the US-South Korean alliance if what it called nuclear and missile provocations continue. The ministry also urged Pyongyang to accept talks over its nuclear programme and acknowledge that abandoning its nuclear ambitions is the only way to guarantee its security and economic development.
In a rare move, South Korea’s military released footage of its own missile tests that were conducted last week.
The videos showed two types of new missiles with ranges of 497 miles and 310 miles being fired from truck-mounted launchers during three tests conducted on Thursday.
South Korea’s agency for defence development said the launches represented the last flight test for the longer-range missile before it is operationally deployed. Such missiles, which would be latest additions to South Korea’s Hyumoo family of missiles, are considered key components in the so-called “kill chain” pre-emptive strike capability the South is pursuing to cope with the North’s growing nuclear and missile threat.
North Korea typically reacts with anger to the annual US-South Korean military drills, which are happening now, often testing weapons and threatening Seoul and Washington in its state-controlled media. But animosity is higher than usual following threats by Mr Trump to unleash “fire and fury” on the North, and Pyongyang’s stated plan to consider firing some of its missiles near Guam.