Defying UN sanctions and US threats, North Korea test-fired on Monday a missile into Japan’s exclusive economic zone in a new provocative measure that will only fuel the tensions over its nuclear goals.
It was the North’s third ballistic missile test in as many weeks and the 12 in 2016.
US military monitors said the short-range missile flew for six minutes, while Japan said it fell into its maritime economic zone, extending 200 nautical miles from the coast.
The launch went ahead despite tough talk from US President Donald Trump, who promised last week at the G7 summit that the “big problem” of North Korea “will be solved”.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe swiftly condemned the test and vowed concerted action with its US ally.
“We will never tolerate North Korea’s continued provocations that ignore repeated warnings by the international community,” Abe told reporters.
“As agreed during the G7 summit, the North Korean problem is the international community’s top priority. In order to deter North Korea, we will take concrete action with the United States.”
The North has been stepping up efforts towards its ultimate goal — developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental US.
Monday’s test also marked the second time this year that a North Korean missile fell provocatively close to its neighbor Japan. South Korea’s military said the Scud-type missile traveled for 450 km (280 miles). North Korea has a large stockpile of the short-range missiles, originally developed by the Soviet Union.
Despite Trump’s strident warnings, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in an interview which aired Sunday before the launch that a war with North Korea would be “catastrophic”.
“The North Korean regime has hundreds of artillery cannons and rocket launchers within range of one of the most densely populated cities on Earth, which is the capital of South Korea,” he told CBS News.
“This regime is a threat to the region, to Japan, to South Korea. And in the event of war, they would bring danger to China and to Russia as well.
“But the bottom line is, it would be a catastrophic war if this turns into a combat, if we’re not able to resolve this situation through diplomatic means.”
Mattis declined to say what kind of action from Pyongyang would constitute a “red line” for Washington, saying the administration needs “political maneuver room.”
South Korea’s new president Moon Jae-In ordered a meeting of the national security council to assess the launch, which came a day after North Korea said its leader Kim Jong-Un had overseen a test of a new anti-aircraft weapons system.
The South condemned the missile test as a “grave threat” and a challenge to Moon, who advocates dialogue with the North in a break from his conservative predecessors.
“That the North repeated such provocations after the inauguration of our new leadership… is a direct challenge to our demand for peace and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” the foreign ministry said.
North Korea is likely showing its determination to push ahead in the face of international pressure to rein in its missile program and “to pressure the (South Korean) government to change its policy on the North”, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Roh Jae-cheon said.
The missile launches, and Pyongyang’s threat to stage its sixth nuclear test, have prompted calls for tougher UN sanctions and a warning from Trump that military intervention was an option under consideration.
China reiterated that UN Security Council resolutions had “clear rules” about North Korean missile activities and it urged Pyongyang not to contravene them.
“The situation on the Korean peninsula is complex and sensitive, and we hope all relevant sides maintain calm and exercise restraint, ease the tense situation as soon as possible and put the issue back onto the correct track of peaceful dialogue,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Russia condemned the launched and also called for restraint, “including towards military activity”, from the partners it was working with, the RIA news agency quoted a deputy Russian foreign minister as saying.
North Korea says its nuclear program is necessary to counter US aggression.
The White House said Trump had been briefed about the launch. The US Pacific Command said it tracked what appeared to be a short-range ballistic missile for six minutes and assessed it did not pose a threat to North America.
The latest launch demonstrates the North’s determination to secure more leverage in any future negotiations with the US, said Cho Han-Bum, analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
“The North, despite its series of provocations, has not crossed the ultimate red line, which would be staging another nuclear test or a successful ICBM test,” Cho said.
“Today’s launch is the North’s way of saying to the world, ‘It wouldn’t be easy to make us suspend our weapons programs even if you manage to pressure me into negotiations’,” he said.
Following North Korea’s test-firing earlier this month of what analysts said was its longest-range rocket yet, the UN Security Council vowed to push all countries to tighten sanctions against Pyongyang.
But China, the North’s main trade partner and ally, has made it clear that the push for talks — and not more sanctions — is the priority.
The US has said it is willing to enter into talks with North Korea, but only if it halts its missile and nuclear tests.
On Tuesday, the United States will test an existing missile defense system to try to intercept an ICBM, the first such test, officials said last week.