In an “unprecedented, grave and serious” threat, nuclear-armed North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile over Hokkaido on Tuesday morning, the first unannounced launch of a missile to fly over Japan.
The Japanese government said the missile flew over southern Hokkaido for two minutes, later breaking into three segments before plunging into the Pacific Ocean about 1,180 km east of Cape Erimo.
The North launched the apparent intermediate-range missile that traveled for about 14 minutes, at 5:58 a.m., the government said, adding that no damage had been reported to ships or aircraft.
In February 2016, Pyongyang launched an Unha-3 rocket that was believed to have flown over Okinawa. The North said the launch was meant to put an Earth observation satellite into orbit. In 2009 and 2012, one of the country’s rockets passed over Japanese territory without incident, triggering an immediate denouncement by Tokyo.
Pyongyang has claimed the launches were of rockets — not missiles — designed to send telecommunications satellites into orbit, but Washington, Seoul and Tokyo called them thinly veiled tests of long-range missile technology.
South Korea’s military said Tuesday’s missile was fired from the Sunan area near the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and flew a distance of more than 2,700 km, hitting a maximum altitude of around 550 km.
The Self-Defense Forces did not attempt to shoot down the missile, which passed over Japanese territory at around 6:06 a.m., but the government’s J-Alert warning system was activated and people in the area of the missile’s path were advised to take precautions.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that the government had a grasp of the situation immediately after the launch. He called it “an unprecedented, grave and serious threat” that damages the peace and security of the region, adding that Tokyo had lodged a firm protest with Pyongyang.
However, Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters that the North may have “held back” in its latest launch by not targeting the area around the U.S. territory of Guam. In an earlier threat, the North said it had formulated a plan to send missiles into the waters near the island, home to key U.S. military bases.
Kono also told reporters the government had requested that a United Nations Security Council meeting be convened over the launch. That meeting was expected later Tuesday.
In Washington, the Pentagon confirmed the launch, saying it was working to analyze the situation. “We are still in the process of assessing this launch. North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) determined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning said in a statement.
Later Tuesday morning, Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump discussed the latest provocation over the phone. The two leaders spoke for about 40 minutes, agreeing that the latest launch made it clear that now is not the right time for dialogue and that increased pressure is necessary, a high-ranking Japanese government official said.
“We completely agreed that we should further strengthen pressure (against the North) by convening an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council immediately,” Abe told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office.
Abe also quoted Trump as saying the U.S. “stands behind Japan 100 percent” and reaffirmed its “strong commitment” to defending the nation.
The Japan-U.S. security treaty obliges the U.S. to jointly defend Japan if the country is attacked by a third nation, while Tokyo is obliged to allow Washington to use bases for the U.S. military in Japan.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan should all cooperate and urge the international community, including China and Russia, to put more pressure on the North, Abe said.
“We need to have (North Korea) change its policy” of maintaining nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Abe said.
In Seoul, South Korean President Moon Jae-in ordered his country’s military Tuesday to demonstrate its “overwhelming” capabilities, should the North decide to attack, the presidential Blue House was quoted as saying by the South’s Yonhap news agency.
The show of force involved the dropping of eight Mark 84, or MK84, multipurpose bombs by four F-15K fighter jets at a shooting range near the inter-Korean border in Taebaek, Yoon Young-chan, Moon’s chief press secretary, said.
Seoul also made public rare footage of its testing of new ballistic missiles. The state-run Agency for Defense Development’s 86-second video clip showed the test-firing of a 500-km-range ballistic missile with “improved warhead power” and that of another one with a range of 800 km. The footage showed the missile accurately hitting mock targets on the ground and in the water. The tests were conducted last week and were the last ones before the deployment of the missiles, it added.
Outside Tokyo, Tuesday’s launch came as the Self-Defense Forces were deploying anti-missile batteries at three U.S. bases in Japan as part of an already scheduled drill. The U.S. military said the exercise was conducted to test the ability of Japanese and U.S. forces to work together and assess firing locations. It was also intended to allow Japan to practice rapid deployment of its PAC-3 anti-missile system.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said no attempt was made to shoot down Tuesday’s missile because it was not seen landing in Japanese territory. Under the Self-Defense Forces Law, the defense chief can order incoming missiles be shot down if they are seen as posing a threat to Japan.
Onodera added that the missile was thought to have fallen outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Japan has in the past vowed to shoot down North Korean missiles or rockets that threaten to hit its territory, though some experts and officials have said this could be potentially technically difficult.
Michael Bosack, a former deputy chief of government relations for U.S. Forces Japan, said that unlike the 2009 launch, this one came unannounced and took an eastern trajectory closer to Japanese population centers instead of a southern route.
“The Japanese government is keenly aware that although North Korea may not be directly targeting Japanese territory, there is still the threat to personnel and property,” Bosack said. “A failed missile or stages of the missile could land on Japanese population centers, and both air and maritime traffic are at risk when missiles are launched without prior warning.
“This launch demonstrates the Kim Jong Un regime’s willingness to accept those risks without fear of reprisal by either Japan or the international community,” Bosack added.
Tokyo’s position that it can and might shoot down a threatening North Korean missile has become more relevant after Pyongyang announced this month a plan to shower the area around Guam with four missiles that would overfly Japan.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, however, appeared to back off on that threat in the following days, leading to an almost monthlong hiatus in missile tests by the isolated country.
That pause was broken Saturday, when the country launched three short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan.
The U.S. Pacific Command said two of the missiles flew 250 km (155 miles) while the other appeared to have blown up immediately.
Despite the “provocative act,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left the door open for talks with the North, having earlier praised Pyongyang for exercising “restraint” and halting launches for nearly 30 days.
Trump, who had vowed to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea if it endangered the United States, also appeared to tamp down his rhetoric last week, expressing cautious hope for a possible improvement in relations with Pyongyang by telling a campaign rally that Kim “is starting to respect us.”
Tuesday’s launch also came amid the joint U.S.-South Korean Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) military exercises, which are due to wrap up Thursday. The North views the annual war games as a rehearsal for invasion, and has routinely threatened retaliation.
Experts said the test-firing Tuesday was unlikely to be a response to Tillerson, but rather a reaction to the UFG war games.
“A launch of this nature takes time to prepare, so it is unlikely that this was a direct response to recent overtures from Secretary Tillerson,” said Bosack. “Rather, this is part of the ongoing cycle of DPRK provocations associated with the Trump administration’s pressure campaign against North Korea and the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise.”
DPRK is the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
North Korea has been one of the Trump administration’s top foreign policy challenges, one that has taken on increased focus after it conducted two test-firings of its Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last month.
Experts said the second launch saw the missile fly higher and longer than the first, and now puts a large chunk of the United States — including Chicago and Los Angeles — potentially within range of Pyongyang’s ever-improving weapons systems.
The White House has said that all options remain on the table, including military action, stoking concerns of a second Korean War that would devastate the region.
Here are the key dates in Pyongyang’s quest to develop a missile capable of hitting the United States:
Late 1970s: North Korea starts working on a version of the Soviet Scud-B (range 300 km). Test-fired in 1984
1987-92: Begins developing variant of Scud-C (range 500 km), Rodong-1 (1,300 km), Taepodong-1 (2,500 km), Musudan-1 (3,000 km) and Taepodong-2 (6,700 km)
August 1998: Test-fires Taepodong-1 rocket over Japan in what it calls a satellite launch. U.S. and others say it is a missile
September 1999: Declares moratorium on long-range missile tests amid improving ties with U.S.
July 12, 2000: Fifth round of U.S.-North Korean missile talks ends without agreement after North demands $1 billion a year in return for halting missile exports
March 3, 2005: Pyongyang ends moratorium on long-range missile testing, blames George W. Bush administration’s “hostile” policy
July 5, 2006: Test-fires seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2 that explodes after 40 seconds
Oct. 9, 2006: Conducts underground nuclear test, its first
April 5, 2009: Launches long-range rocket that flies over Japan and lands in the Pacific, in what it says is an attempt to put a satellite into orbit. The United States, Japan and South Korea see it as a disguised test of a Taepodong-2
May 25, 2009: Conducts its second underground nuclear test, several times more powerful than the first
April 13, 2012: Launches what it has said is a long-range rocket to put a satellite into orbit, but which disintegrates soon after blastoff
Dec. 12, 2012: Launches a multistage rocket and successfully places an Earth observational satellite in orbit
Feb. 12, 2013: Conducts its third underground nuclear test
Jan. 6, 2016: Conducts its fourth underground nuclear test, which it says was a hydrogen bomb — a claim doubted by most experts
March 9, 2016: Kim Jong Un claims the North has successfully miniaturized a thermonuclear warhead
April 23, 2016: Pyongyang test-fires a submarine-launched ballistic missile
July 8, 2016: U.S. and South Korea announce plans to deploy an advanced missile defense system — THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense)
Aug. 3, 2016: North Korea fires a ballistic missile directly into Japan’s exclusive economic zone for the first time
Sept. 9, 2016: Conducts fifth nuclear test
March 6, 2017: Fires four ballistic missiles in what it says is an exercise to hit U.S. bases in Japan
March 7, 2017: U.S. begins deploying THAAD system in South Korea
May 14, 2017: North Korea fires a ballistic missile which flies 700 km before landing in the Sea of Japan. Analysts say it has an imputed range of 4,500 km and brings Guam within reach
July 4, 2017: Test-fires a ballistic missile that analysts say brings Alaska within reach. Pyongyang later says it was a “landmark” test of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
July 28, 2017: Launches a missile with a theoretical range of 10,000 km, meaning it could hit much of the United States
Aug. 26, 2017: Fires three short-range ballistic missiles
Aug. 29, 2017: Fires ballistic missile across Japanese territory. South Korea says it was launched from Sunan, near Pyongyang and flew around 2,700 km at a maximum altitude of around 550 km