By Christine Kim and Phil Stewart
SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea fired what appeared to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that landed close to Japan, officials said, Pyongyang's first test launch since mid-September with some scientists cautioning that Washington, D.C., could now technically be within reach.
North Korea fired the missile a week after U.S. President Donald Trump put North Korea back on a U.S list of countries that Washington says support terrorism. The designation allows the United States to impose more sanctions, although some experts said it risked inflaming tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea has conducted dozens of ballistic missile tests under its leader, Kim Jong Un, in defiance of U.N. sanctions. Trump has vowed not to let North Korea develop nuclear missiles that can hit the mainland United States.
Of the latest test missile, Trump told reporters at the White House: "It is a situation that we will handle." Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke by phone and agreed to boost deterrence capability against North Korea, Yasutoshi Nishimura, deputy chief cabinet secretary, told reporters in Tokyo.
Trump said the launch did not change his administration's approach to North Korea, which has included new curbs to hurt trade between China and North Korea. Washington views the strategy as important to deterring Pyongyang from its ambition to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States.
Washington has said repeatedly that all options, including military ones, are on the table in dealing with North Korea, but that it prefers a peaceful solution by Pyongyang agreeing to give up its weapons programs.
"Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now. The United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearization and to ending belligerent actions by North Korea," U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.
Other than carrying out existing U.N. sanctions, "the international community must take additional measures to enhance maritime security, including the right to interdict maritime traffic" travelling to North Korea, Tillerson said in a statement.
The U.N. Security Council was scheduled to meet on Wednesday to discuss North Korea's latest missile launch. North Korea has given no indication it is willing to give up its weapons programs and re-enter diplomatic talks.
The United States and Japan said the early Wednesday launch appeared to be an ICBM.
The Pentagon said its initial assessment was that an ICBM was launched from Sain Ni in North Korea and travelled about 1,000 km before splashing down in the Sea of Japan. The missile did not pose a threat to the United States, its territories or allies, the Pentagon said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the ICBM went "higher frankly than any previous shot they've taken".
Japan's government estimated that the missile flew for about 50 minutes and landed in the sea in Japan's exclusive economic zone, Japanese broadcaster NHK said. A North Korean missile on Aug. 29 was airborne for 14 minutes over Japan.
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said the missile reached an estimated altitude of 4,000 kilometres (2,485 miles) and broke up before landing in Japan's exclusive economic zone. He said it was judged to be ICBM class given its lofted trajectory.
"If these numbers are correct, then if flown on a standard trajectory rather than this lofted trajectory, this missile would have a range of more than 13,000 km (8,100 miles) ... Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington, D.C., and in fact any part of the continental United States," the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists said.
"We do not know how heavy a payload this missile carried, but given the increase in range it seems likely that it carried a very light mock warhead," the nonprofit science advocacy group said. "If true, that means it would be incapable of carrying a nuclear warhead to this long distance, since such a warhead would be much heavier."
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile was fired from Pyongsong, a city in South Pyongan Province, at around 1817 GMT over the sea between South Korea and Japan. The South Korean military said the missile had an altitude of around 4,500 km (2,800 miles) and flew 960 km (600 miles).
Minutes after the North fired the missile, South Korea's military conducted a missile-firing test in response, the South Korean military said.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the launch had been anticipated and that the government had been preparing for it. Moon said that there is no choice but for countries to keep applying pressure and sanctions against North Korea.
U.S. stocks briefly pared gains on the news but the S&P 500 index was up almost a percent at the close.
A U.S. intelligence official said the initial indication was that the engine was not significantly more powerful than the Hwasong 14 which Pyongyang tested in July.
The Hwasong-14 is a two-stage ICBM North Korea tested twice in July. South Korean and U.S. officials and defence experts have said the Hwasong-14 may have a range of about 10,000 km (6,200 miles) and could possibly strike many parts of the United States, but not the East Coast.
After firing missiles at a rate of about two or three a month since April, North Korea paused its missile launches in September, following a missile it fired that passed over Japan’s northern Hokkaido island on Sept. 15.
North Korea has said its weapons programs are a necessary defence against U.S. plans to invade. The United States, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war, denies any such intention.
Last week, North Korea denounced Trump's decision to relist it as a state sponsor of terrorism, calling it a "serious provocation and violent infringement."
A U.S. government source familiar with official reporting and analyses said the U.S. assessment was the launch was the latest in a well-calculated and serious series of tests to develop and perfect North Korea missile systems rather than any response to Trump.
Trump has traded insults and threats with Kim and warned in September that the United States would have no choice but to "totally destroy" North Korea if forced to defend itself or its allies.
(Reporting by Christine Kim in Seoul, Linda Sieg, William Mallard, Timothy Kelly in Tokyo, Mark Hosenball, John Walcott, Steve Holland and Tim Ahmann in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Yara Bayoumy and David Brunnstrom; editing by Grant McCool)