North Korea launched what Japan called a potentially “new type of ballistic missile” early Sunday in a test of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was sworn in just days earlier.
The U.S. Pacific Command confirmed the test-firing, which it said took place around 5:30 a.m. at a site near Kusong, North Korea.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said the missile flew for about 30 minutes, reaching an altitude of more than 2,000 km (1,245 miles) and was believed to have traveled some 800 km before falling into the Sea of Japan about 400 km outside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said the launch, which was likely conducted at a steep “lofted” trajectory and hit the highest-ever altitude recorded by the Defense Ministry, could be of a “new type of ballistic missile.”
Later in the day, a senior Defense Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that even a ballistic missile with a range of about 1,300 km usually hits an altitude of several hundreds of kilometers at its highest point. The official said the “rather unusual” altitude means the missile could have been lofted, meaning Pyongyang may have intentionally fired it at the higher altitude to shorten its flying distance.
The Pacific Command, however, ruled out the test being one of a long-range missile capable of striking the U.S.
“The type of missile is being assessed and the flight was not consistent with an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Pacific Command spokesman Maj. Rob Shuford said in a statement.
Japan swiftly condemned the test-firing amid growing concern over the North’s missile and nuclear weapons programs.
“These repeated missile launches by North Korea are a grave threat to our country and are in clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters following the launch.
Calling the behavior “absolutely unacceptable,” Abe said further provocations by North Korea are expected. Abe said Japan will continue to work with the United States and South Korea to do all it can to ensure the public’s safety.
In Washington, the White House issued a statement condemning the North Korean “menace” and the United States’ “ironclad commitment” to its allies, Japan and South Korea.
But the statement also made an unusual reference to Russia, a member of the all-but-dead “six-party talks” aimed at dismantling the North’s nuclear program.
“With the missile impacting so close to Russian soil — in fact, closer to Russia than Japan — the president cannot imagine that Russia is pleased,” the statement said.
“Let this latest provocation serve as a call for all nations to implement far stronger sanctions against North Korea,” the statement added.
The reference to Moscow — ahead of U.S. allies — is likely to stoke concern amid investigations into interference in the 2016 presidential election.
It could also, however, be part of the White House strategy of piling “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang to rein in its nuclear and missile ambitions.
“The identification of Russia is indicative of Trump’s ‘all-in’ approach on North Korea and his desire to make it a top issue with all states in the region,” said J. Berkshire Miller, a Tokyo-based international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. “Clearly Russia is a key stakeholder here and remains — after China — a significant source of trade and cash for the regime in Pyongyang.”
Speaking in Beijing, Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, was quoted as saying Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping had discussed the situation on the Korean Peninsula, including the latest launch and expressed “mutual concerns” about growing tensions.
Putin is in Beijing for a conference on a plan for a new Silk Road. Delegations from the United States, South Korea and North Korea are also there.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference Sunday morning that Japan was analyzing the test-firing, noting that the missile had flown for as long as 30 minutes.
That flying time is much longer than past North Korean ballistic missile launches. For example, when Pyongyang fired a satellite launch version of the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile in February last year, it flew only for 14 minutes though it traveled as far as 2,500 km before falling into the Pacific Ocean.
Suga also said Japan is ready to “firmly cooperate with” the United States and South Korea in dealing with the North Korean military threat.
South Korea’s Moon has advocated for dialogue with Pyongyang, raising concerns among Japanese diplomats that he may take a conciliatory approach toward the North and could disturb trilateral cooperation among Tokyo, Seoul and Washington.
Asked about the concern, Suga emphasized to reporters that Seoul and Tokyo “have clearly confirmed that Japan and South Korea will firmly cooperate” in dealing with North Korean issues.
At the same time, Japan, South Korea and the United States “also need cooperation of China and Russia,” Suga added.
Later the same day, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, talked by telephone for 15 minutes, agreeing to “closely cooperate” and to “put pressure” on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and missile programs, Kishida told reporters.
Suga also said that because the missile was not a threat to Japan, the government had decided not to activate the government’s J-Alert emergency advisory system. The nationwide system provides rapid alerts from the central government to municipal authorities to facilitate speedy evacuations and other actions in the event of a disaster.
Moon on Sunday strongly condemned the test, describing it as a grave threat to regional security and a clear violation of the U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The launch came just days after Moon’s swearing-in, during which he said that he is willing to visit the North if circumstances are right.
U.S. President Donald Trump has also said he’d be “honored” to talk with leader Kim Jong Un under the right conditions.
On Saturday, the top North Korean diplomat in charge of U.S. relations, Choe Son Hui, said in Beijing that Pyongyang officials will be willing to meet with the Trump administration for negotiations “if the conditions are set.”
David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the flight time, if true, means the missile has a “considerably longer range” than any of the missiles currently in the North’s arsenal.
Wright said that if the missile had been flown on a standard trajectory instead of lofted, “it would have a maximum range of about 4,500 km.”
“That is considerably longer than the estimated range of the Musudan missile, which showed a range of about 3,000 km in a test last year,” he said.
Such a missile would put U.S. bases on Guam — which is 3,400 km from North Korea — within reach.
Reaching the U.S. West Coast would require a missile with a range of more than 8,000 km. Hawaii is roughly 7,000 km from North Korea.
Wright said Sunday’s launch may have been of a new mobile, two-stage liquid-fueled missile the North Korea showed off in a massive military parade on April 15.
Last month, the North conducted two tests of apparent intermediate-range missiles from a site near its eastern coast, but both launches ended in failure. It launched another missile just two weeks ago, on April 29, that failed just after liftoff.
There has been mounting speculation that Pyongyang will conduct an intercontinental ballistic missile test after Kim used a New Year’s Day address to claim that the North was in the “final stages” of developing such a weapon.
But while the new missile likely represented a breakthrough for the North, Wright said it still remains “a difficult technical step to increase the range to intercontinental distances.”
Pyongyang has conducted a spate of missile launches and two nuclear tests over the past year in violation of United Nations resolutions as it seeks to master the technology needed to mount a warhead on a long-range ballistic missile capable of striking the continental United States.
Shea Cotton, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, said the North has conducted 10 known missile tests this year — one more than the pace at the same point last year — and the 76th test since Kim took power in December 2011.
“With this launch appearing to be successful, Kim Jong Un’s overall missile test record is 59 successful, 17 failures. A .776 batting average,” Cotton wrote on Twitter.
These tests included the near-simultaneous firing of four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan in March — a move the North said was a rehearsal for attacking U.S. bases in Japan. Those missiles, three of which fell into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, flew about 1,000 km and were characterized by Abe as “a new level of threat.”
Missile experts said the hypothetical target of that drill appeared to be U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Observers said the undisguised threat to U.S. bases in Japan was rare, even for Pyongyang, which routinely serves up colorful invectives.