In a 1st, North Korea fires missile over Japan in agggressive test
In a first, North Korea on Tuesday fired a midrange ballistic missile designed to carry a nuclear payload that flew over Japan and splashed into the northern Pacific Ocean, officials said. The aggressive missile launch — likely the longest ever from North Korea — over the territory of a close U.S. ally sends a clear message of defiance as Washington and Seoul conduct war games nearby.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile traveled around 2,700 kilometers (1,677 miles) and reached a maximum height of 550 kilometers (341 miles) as it traveled over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The distance and type of missile tested seemed designed to show that North Korea can back up a threat to target the U.S. territory of Guam, if it chooses to do so, while also establishing a potentially dangerous precedent that could see future missiles flying over Japan.
Any new test worries Washington and its allies because it presumably puts North Korea a step closer to its goal of an arsenal of nuclear missiles that can reliably target the United States. Tuesday’s test, however, looks especially aggressive to Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.
North Korea has conducted launches at an unusually fast pace this year — 13 times, Seoul says — and some analysts believe it could have viable long-range nuclear missiles before the end of U.S. President Donald Trump’s first term in early 2021.
Seoul says that while North Korea has twice before fired rockets it said were carrying satellites over Japan — in 1998 and 2009 — it has never before used a ballistic missile, which is unambiguously designed for military strikes. North Korea also chose not to fire its most recent missile at a lofted angle, as it did in previous launches to avoid other countries, and Seoul’s spy service said the North launched from an unusual spot: the international airport in its capital, Pyongyang. The South Korean military was analyzing whether North Korea had launched a Hwasong-12, a new intermediate-range missile that it recently threatened to fire into waters near Guam, which hosts a major U.S. military base that the North considers a threat.
The launch is also another rebuke to Trump, who suggested last week that his tough approach to North Korea, which included threats to unleash “fire and fury,” meant leader Kim Jong Un “is starting to respect us.”
Tuesday’s missile landed nowhere near Guam, but firing a Hwasong-12 (Hwasong is Korean for Mars, or Fire Star) so soon after the Guam threat may be a way for North Korea to show it could follow through if it chose to do so. Guam is 3,400 kilometers (2,110 miles) away from North Korea, but South Korea’s military said the North may have fired the most recent missile at a shorter range.
South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in a closed-door briefing that North Korea fired the missile from an airfield at Pyongyang’s international airport. Some outside observers said launching a road-mobile missile from an airport runway could demonstrate the North’s ability to fire its missiles from anywhere in the country. It was not immediately clear what the launch meant for the few civilian flights that use the airport.
The National Intelligence Service also told lawmakers it was unclear whether the missile’s warhead survived atmospheric re-entry, according to the office of Kim Byung-kee, a lawmaker in attendance.
Separately, the spy agency said North Korean leader Kim’s third child was born in February, but provided no other details.
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 made their usual strongly worded condemnations of the launch. There were no immediate tweets from Trump.
“We will do our utmost to protect people’s lives,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said. “This reckless act of launching a missile that flies over our country is an unprecedented, serious and important threat.”
Tokyo said there was no reported damage from the missile, which Japan’s NHK TV said separated into three parts. Residents on Hokkaido were warned of a North Korean missile launch by an alert on their cellphones, with loud alarms and an email that told people to stay indoors. Speakers broadcast an alert saying “missile is passing, missile is passing.”
A U.S. congressman visiting Seoul said Washington is now pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions by shutting down the impoverished country’s access to hard currency, the lifeblood of its expensive weapons program.
The goal is to offer international banks that do business with North Korea a choice between bankruptcy and freezing North Korean accounts, U.S. Rep. Ed