North Korea has conducted a night test of a long-range ballistic missile that landed off the coast of Japan, triggering a South Korea test-launch in response and bringing a return to high tension to the region after a lull of more than two months.
The Pentagon issued a statement saying that the weapon tested was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Initial reports from Seoul suggested that it came from a mobile launcher and was fired at about 3am local time.
The missile was reported to have flown for 50 minutes on a very high trajectory, reaching 4,500 km above the earth before coming down nearly 1,000 km from the launch site off the west coast of Japan.
This would make it the most powerful of the three ICBMs North Korea has tested so far.
Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, condemned the missile launch as a “violent act” that “can never be tolerated” and called for an emergency meeting of the UN security council.
David Wright, a physicist and missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, calculated that on a normal trajectory, rather than a high lofted one, the missile would have a range of 13,000 km, enough to reach Washington, the rest of the US west coast, Europe or Australia.
Furthermore, the mobile night launch appeared aimed at testing new capabilities and demonstrating that Pyongyang would be able to strike back after any attempt at a preventative strike against the regime.
“It went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken,” James Mattis, the US defence secretary, told reporters.
“It’s a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten anywhere in the world.”
Mattis added the North Korean missile programme “threatens world peace, regional peace and certainly the United States”.
President Trump, who had insisted that North Korean development of an ICBM would not happen during his presidency, said: “We will take care of it … it is a situation that we will handle.”
“The missile was launched from Sain Ni, North Korea, and travelled about 1,000 km before splashing down in the Sea of Japan, within Japan’s economic exclusion zone.
“We are working with our interagency partners on a more detailed assessment of the launch,” Pentagon spokesman Col Robert Manning said.
Within minutes of the launch, the South Korean joint chiefs of staff announced Seoul had carried out an exercise involving the launch of a “precision strike” missile, signalling that it was primed to respond immediately to any attack from the North.
It was the first North Korean ballistic missile test since 15 September and followed a warning earlier this month from Donald Trump that North Korean threats to strike the US and its allies would be a “fatal miscalculation”.
The launch also marked a rebuff to Russia, which had claimed the previous day that the pause in missile launches suggested that Pyongyang was ready to defuse tensions in line with a proposal from Moscow and Beijing that North Korea could freeze missile and nuclear tests in exchange for a scaling down of US and allied military exercises.
Mira Rapp-Hooper, an expert on Asia-Pacific security at Yale Law School and the Centre for a New American Security, said that the night launch “matters because that’s when they’d launch under operational conditions.
Abe told reporters: “We will never give in to provocative acts [by North Korea],” adding that the international community would put “maximum pressure” on North Korea to abandon its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme.
Abe said Japan had lodged a “strong protest” with the regime in Pyongyang, which he accused of ignoring other countries’ “united, strong will for a peaceful solution”.
He added: “The international community needs to work in unison to fully implement sanctions.”
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