The Associated Press
SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of–In a first, North Korea today fired a mid-range 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 travelled around 2,700 km and reached a maximum height of 550 km as it travelled over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
The distance and type of missile tested seemed designed to show 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 reliably can target the United States.
Today’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 said while North Korea twice before has fired rockets it said were carrying satellites over Japan (in 1998 and 2009), it has never before used a ballistic missile, which is designed unambiguously 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.
As well, 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 it recently threatened to fire into waters near Guam, which hosts a major U.S. military base the North considers a threat.
The launch also is 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.”
Today’s missile landed nowhere near Guam, but firing a Hwasong-12 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 m away from North Korea, but South Korea’s military said the North may have fired the most recent missile at a shorter range.