In a brazen rejection of tough new U.N. sanctions, North Korea fired an intermediate-range missile over Hokkaido on Friday that flew about 3,700 km before splashing down far out in the Pacific Ocean — its second launch over Japan in just over two weeks.
The Japanese government said the missile was launched at around 6:57 a.m. and went down at around 7:16 a.m. about 2,200 km east of Cape Erimo, the farthest a North Korean missile has ever flown.
At a news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the missile had flown about 3,700 km in total while reaching a maximum altitude of about 800 km, meaning it had not been “lofted,” or launched on steep trajectory. Lofting missiles shortens their range but makes interception exceedingly difficult.
“The Self-Defense Forces detected and tracked the missile perfectly from launch through landing,” Suga claimed.
“We didn’t intercept it because no damage to Japanese territory was expected,” he added. Some experts, however, have cast doubt over whether Japan even has the capabilities to shoot down such a fast-moving, high-flying missile.
Suga said Japan condemned the launch in the “strongest words possible.”
He told reporters earlier at the Prime Minister’s Office that the situation was similar to the one on Aug. 29, when the North fired an intermediate-range Hwasong-12 missile over Hokkaido, the first unannounced launch of a missile designed to carry a nuclear payload to fly over Japan.
The North has previously launched rockets — not missiles — that it said were designed to send telecommunications satellites into orbit. However, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo called those thinly veiled tests of long-range missile technology.
Friday’s missile launch came hours before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned from an official visit to India.
Abe, speaking to reporters in Tokyo, said the international community must “firmly unite to send out a clear message” to Pyongyang.
The launch “has again made it clear that (U.N.) resolutions calling for sanctions should be completely implemented,” he said.
“We need to have North Korea understand that they will have no bright future if they keep going this way,” Abe added.
On Monday, the U.N. Security Council approved a tough, new U.S.-drafted sanctions resolution that included a ban on textile exports and a restriction on shipments of oil products, among other measures.
Later Friday, Foreign Minister Taro Kono spoke over the phone with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera held a teleconference with his Pentagon counterpart, James Mattis.
Speaking to reporters, Kono said that he and Tillerson had agreed that Tokyo, Washington and Seoul will urge other U.N. member states to fully implement the economic sanctions slapped on the regime this week.
Kono also said that Japan, the U.S. and South Korea had jointly called for an emergency meeting of U.N. Security Council, which was set to convene Friday in New York.
“North Korea has repeatedly conducted missile-firings and nuclear tests. This is a strong challenge to the international community,” Kono said.
“We want (Pyongyang) to get to the table of dialogue after making clear its intention to denuclearize,” Kono added.
South Korea’s left-leaning leader, President Moon Jae-in, also condemned the latest launch, adding that it made dialogue with the reclusive nation impossible under the current circumstances.
“Dialogue is impossible in a situation like this,” Moon was quoted by the South’s Yonhap news agency as saying. “International sanctions and pressure will further tighten to force North Korea to choose no other option but to step forward on the path to genuine dialogue.”
In a separate statement, Tillerson slammed the launch, saying Pyongyang’s “continued provocations only deepen North Korea’s diplomatic and economic isolation.”
“North Korea’s provocative missile launch represents the second time the people of Japan, a treaty ally of the United States, have been directly threatened in recent weeks,” he said.
In a possible threat of even stronger measures to be taken at the U.N., the top U.S. diplomat urged “all nations to take new measures against the Kim regime,” adding that the recent sanctions “represent the floor, not the ceiling, of the actions we should take.”
Tillerson singled out China and Russia as the North’s biggest supplier of oil and its largest employer of forced labor, respectively.
“China and Russia must indicate their intolerance for these reckless missile launches by taking direct actions of their own,” Tillerson said.
Monday’s U.N. sanctions were ultimately watered down to win the support of Beijing and Moscow, both veto-wielding members of the Security Council, after the U.S. had initially distributed a tougher draft of the resolution that included a full embargo on oil exports to North Korea.
While Japan did not attempt to intercept the missile, the launch triggered the nation’s J-Alert warning system, which advised people in 11 prefectures and Hokkaido to take precautions. The 11 prefectures were Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Yamagata, Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Niigata and Nagano.
The U.S. military’s Pacific Command said in a statement that it had also detected and tracked the apparent intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM).
It said the missile did not pose a threat to Guam, some 3,400 km from Pyongyang, though experts said it proved the North could viably target the U.S. territory, home to key American military bases.
“The range of this test was significant since North Korea demonstrated that it could reach Guam with this missile, although the payload the missile was carrying is not known,” David Wright, co-director of the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists said in a statement.
However, Wright said the accuracy of the missile, which is still at an early stage of development, was low and that it would be difficult to use it to destroy Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base, which hosts U.S. heavy bombers.
Onodera, who said the missile was believed to be a Hwasong-12, warned that “similar actions would continue” considering that Pyongyang had last month threatened to fire four of the missiles toward Guam and bracket the island with “enveloping” fire.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un later backed off this claim, saying he would watch what “the foolish Yankees” do before making a decision on whether to follow through on the threat.
“We cannot assume North Korea’s intention, but given what it has said, I think it has Guam in mind,” Onodera said.
U.S. President Donald Trump had threatened North Korea last month with “fire and fury” if Pyongyang endangered the United States.
Trump on Thursday announced that he intends to visit Japan, China and South Korea later this year, likely in November, adding that he would “possibly” attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam at the same time.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s military said Friday’s launch had originated from Sunan, an area on the outskirts of Pyongyang that is home to an international airport, Yonhap reported.
In response to the firing, the South Korean military test-launched two Hyunmoo-II missiles, with one failing and the other “accurately” hitting a simulated target in the Sea of Japan about 250 km away, which is roughly the same distance to Sunan airport, the “origin of provocation,” Yonhap reported.
The launch comes on the heels of what Pyongyang claimed was the successful test of a hydrogen bomb capable of being loaded onto an intercontinental ballistic missile, on Sept. 3.
The test and the North’s two launches in July of an ICBM capable of reaching a broad swath of the United States have presented the U.S. and its allies with a new and more potent challenge.
A North Korean state agency had threatened Thursday to use nuclear weapons to “sink” Japan and reduce the United States to “ashes and darkness” for backing the U.N. Security Council resolution.
The North had called its Aug. 29 missile launch over Japan a “meaningful prelude” to containing Guam and the start of more ballistic missile launches toward the Pacific Ocean. Any launch toward Guam would have to overfly Japan.
“The North Koreans have made a strategic decision to roll out their capability as soon as possible,” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. “That means going hell for leather in 2017.”
Graham called Friday’s firing “the longest-range in North Korea’s history.”
“It ticks new, full-range boxes for the Hwasong-12, which is proving itself to be their most successful missile design to date,” he said. “So, it marks another rung up the development ladder to full IOC (initial operational capability) for their flagship IRBM.”