North Korea fires ballistic missile towards Japan in latest act of aggression

Jeremy B White

North Korea has fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that flew higher than any of its previous efforts, shattering a two-month respite from military tests, with experts suggesting that Pyongyang is technically close to putting Washington DC within range.

The Pentagon said it believed the projectile was an ICBM that travelled roughly 1,000 km (620 miles) eastward before plunging into the Sea of Japan. The Japanese Defence Ministry believe the missile remained airborne for 50 minutes and likely landed in the waters of the country’s exclusive economic zone.

The latest act of North Korean aggression demonstrated the type of military advances that have been a feature of a number of its launches this year, which have put its neighbours and the US on edge – as well as sparking an escalating war of words with Washington over its expanding nuclear and missile programmes. The projectile soared higher than any previous North Korean launch, Defence Secretary James Mattis said, part of a drive to build missiles that “can threaten everywhere in the world”.

The South Korean military said the missile had an altitude of around 4,500 km (2,800 miles) and flew 960 km, while Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said the missile reached an estimated altitude of 4,000 kilometres and broke up. He said it was judged to be ICBM class given the missile’s lofted trajectory.

President Donald Trump later tweeted the launch showed it was “more important than ever to fund out gov’t & military!”. Referring to an impending government shutdown, he claimed Democrats were holding troop funding “hostage”.

According to David Wright, the co-director of the global security programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, those numbers suggested that if it had flown on a standard trajectory, rather than a lofted one, it could reach 13,000 km or 8,100 miles. That would put Washington DC within range, with it being about 6,850 miles from Pyongyang.

However, Mr Wright added that given the potential range, the missile was likely to be carrying a light payload or a potential “light mock warhead” that would mean that it could not travel that distance if it was carrying a full warhead.

Colonel Robert Manning, the Pentagon spokesman, said the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad), “determined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America, our territories or our allies.”

Mr Trump was briefed while the missile was “still in the air”, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe convened a meeting of cabinet officials. The South Korean military said it quickly responded with a missile test of its own.

“We will take care of it,” Mr Trump said after the launch, calling it “a situation we will handle”. Mr Trump has repeatedly denounced the North’s missile launches and has called on the UN and neighbours Japan, South Korea and particularly China – Pyongyang’s biggest trading partner – to put as much pressure on the regime of Kim Jong-un as possible.

Japanese officials had been bracing for an imminent missile launch, saying they had detected suspicious radio signals. North Korea has menaced Japan in recent months, firing a ballistic missile over Hokkaido in September — the second time it hurled a missile over Japan — and warning that the nation should be “sunken into the sea” by a nuclear strike.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported three projectiles were fired, the nearest landing 210 kilometres west of Japan’s northern mainland, suggesting the missile broke into pieces. Japan’s Kyodo news agency, quoting the defense ministry, said there were no reports of any damage.

A US intelligence official said the initial indication was that the engine was not significantly more powerful than the Hwasong 14 which Pyongyang tested in July. A 2,800-mile altitude, a 600-mile range, and a splash-down in the sea initially indicates that this was another test of the re-entry vehicle more than one of the missile, its engine, or its guidance system, said the official, who was studying incoming data on the launch.

The firing marks the latest escalation of a global standoff with an increasingly assertive North Korea, with the regime in Pyongyang combining ballistic missile launches with threats of destroying Japan, the United States and the US territory of Guam. It tested a powerful hydrogen bomb for the first time.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a statement saying North Korea’s “relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them must be reversed”. While Mr Tillerson said “diplomatic options remain viable for now,” such constraints have so far failed to halt North Korea’s belligerence. The country has forged ahead with military tests despite successive rounds of United Nations sanctions targeting the country’s economy.

Mr Trump has returned rhetorical fire, repeatedly threatening North Korea with military force — a warning his top aides have echoed — and mocking North Korean leader Mr Kim as “Little Rocket Man”. He recently named North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, restoring a label that was lifted in 2008.

North Korea has called Mr Trump’s threats of a military response tantamount to a declaration of war. The President drew a rare personal rebuke from Mr Kim himself, who called Mr Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard”.

The international community has been searching for a way to rein in North Korea, with the UN Security Council set to met on Wednesday, while Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland announced that her nation will host a meeting on the North Korea crisis, in conjunction with the US. It is believed it will involve about a dozen world leaders, but no date ot location has yet been set.

Mr Trump also spoke by telephone with Japan’s Prime Minister Mr Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, with the latter having already said that the launch had been anticipated and that there was no choice but for countries to keep applying pressure and sanctions against Pyongyang.

The US president and Mr Abe agreed to boost their response to North Korea’s missile programme, as well as urging China to do more to solve the issue.

The pair “agreed that China needs to play an increased role” in countering Pyongyang, Japan said.

Mr Trump and Mr Moon “underscored the grave threat that North Korea’s latest provocation poses” not only to US and South Korea, “but to the entire world,” the White House said.

However, Mr Moon also raised concerns with his own national security council about the threat of escalation, saying that “the situation could get out of control if North Korea perfects its ICBM technology,” according to his office.

“North Korea shouldn’t miscalculate the situation and threaten South Korea with a nuclear weapon, which could elicit a possible pre-emptive strike by the United States,” he added.