North Korea fired a long-range rocket over the Tohoku region Sunday, but Japan did not try to shoot it down because its debris posed no threat to Japanese territory.
The missile, which Pyongyang claimed was carrying a satellite, blasted off from the Musudan-ri launch facility at 11:30 a.m. despite warnings from Tokyo and Washington that it would violate U.N. resolutions banning the North from ballistic activity. The Defense Ministry said the rocket’s first booster fell into the Sea of Japan approximately 280 km west of Akita Prefecture at around 11:37 a.m.
The Self-Defense Forces finished tracking the rocket at 11:48 a.m. after it had crossed northern Honshu and was about 2,100 km east of Japan over the Pacific. The SDF did not confirm whether the second booster fell into the Pacific. Thirteen SDF planes were dispatched to the Tohoku region to look for damage, the ministry said.
Pyongyang’s claim of a successful satellite launch was disputed by the U.S. military, which said “the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean.”
“Stage one of the missile fell into the Sea of Japan,” the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command said in their brief account of the launch.
“The remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean,” the commands said. “No object entered orbit and no debris fell on Japan.”
Prime Minister Taro Aso slammed Pyongyang, calling the launch a violation of resolutions adopted by the U.N. Security Council.
“North Korea carried out an extremely provocative act and went ahead with the launch despite repeated warnings,” he said. “North Korea clearly violated a Security Council resolution.”
Aso said he was relieved the rocket appears to have caused no damage.
“I believe the most important thing is the public’s safety, and right now I am glad that there has been no damage caused on Japanese soil or in our territorial waters by falling objects,” he said.
On Saturday, the government mistakenly announced that North Korea launched the rocket a little past noon, spreading confusion.
But on Sunday the government’s handling of the situation went according to plan, Aso said.
“The government’s response to the launch went well, including the quick notification of the situation to the public,” he said. “We have been conducting various simulations on how to handle the situation and I believe we must make the best use of the experience.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said the government has already decided to extend sanctions on Pyongyang for a year from April 13, including a ban on North Korean-flagged ships from entering Japanese ports and all imports of North Korean goods.
But whether Japan will implement additional sanctions, Kawamura said, depends on the reaction of the U.N. Security Council and the international community.
He said the government filed a protest with Pyongyang through diplomatic channels in Beijing.
“We strongly protested to Pyongyang that the launch is a serious issue from the standpoint of security,” Kawamura said.
He said the government was in the process of confirming whether the rocket was a satellite launch or a long-distance ballistic missile.
Prior to the launch, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada had mobilized Japan’s ¥800 billion missile defense system and ordered the SDF to shoot down any parts of the rocket that could cause damage to Japanese territory.
In addition to moving Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) interceptor batteries to Akita and Iwate prefectures, the destroyers Kongou and Choukai, both equipped with antiballistic missile defense systems, were dispatched to the Sea of Japan.
Pyongyang warned that any attempt to shoot down the rocket would be seen as an act of war and would provoke retaliation.
The Defense Ministry issued its first alert after receiving a U.S. Shared Early Warning missile-firing signal at 11:31 a.m., a minute after the actual launch. At 11:38 a.m. the ministry announced that the missile defense system was not activated during the incident.
Tension at the Defense Ministry was palpable as reporters and officials awaited the looming launch. PAC-3 launchers were set up outside the ministry with dozens of SDF jeeps and cars standing by for emergency duties.
North Korea has repeatedly caused tensions to rise in the East Asian region through its nuclear and missile tests. In 1998, it launched a Taepodong-1 missile, with part of the missile flying over Japan and falling into the Pacific. In 2006, Pyongyang conducted both nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
Information from Kyodo added