In an unprecedented move, North Korea fired on Tuesday a mid-range ballistic missile over Japan’s northern Hokkaido island that landed into the northern Pacific Ocean and that sparked a critical reaction from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The launch came as US and South Korean forces conduct annual military drills on the peninsula, to which North Korea strenuously objects.
The test, one of the most provocative ever from the reclusive state, appeared to have been of a recently developed intermediate-range Hwasong-12 missile, experts said. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the latest missile fell into the sea 1,180 km (735 miles) east of Cape Erimo on Hokkaido.
North Korea has conducted dozens of ballistic missile tests under young leader Kim Jong Un, the most recent on Saturday, but firing projectiles over mainland Japan is rare.
“North Korea’s reckless action is an unprecedented, serious and a grave threat to our nation,” Abe told reporters.
Abe said he spoke to Trump on Tuesday and they agreed to increase pressure on North Korea. Trump also said the United States was “100 percent with Japan”, Abe told reporters.
The United Nations Security Council would meet later on Tuesday to discuss the test, diplomats said.
South Korea’s military said the missile was launched from near the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, just before 6 a.m. (2100 GMT Monday) and flew 2,700 km (1,680 miles), reaching an altitude of about 550 km (340 miles). The length and type of the missile test seemed designed to show that North Korea can back up a threat to target the US territory of Guam, if it chooses to do so, while also establishing a potentially dangerous precedent of sending future missile tests over Japan.
“We will respond strongly based on our steadfast alliance with the United States if North Korea continues nuclear and missile provocations,” the South’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
In an unusual move, South Korea's military released footage of its own missile tests it says were conducted last week. The videos showed two types of new missiles with ranges of 800 kilometers (497 miles) and 500 kilometers (310 miles) being fired from truck-mounted launchers during three tests conducted on August 24.
South Korea's Agency for Defense Development said the launches represented the last flight test for the longer-range missile before it is operationally deployed. Such missiles, which would be the latest additions to South Korea's Hyumoo family of missiles, are considered key components of the so-called "kill chain" preemptive strike capability that the South is pursuing to counter the North's nuclear and missile threat.
South Korea also said its air force conducted a live-fire drill involving four F-15 fighters dropping eight MK-84 bombs that accurately hit targets at a military field near the country's eastern coast. Park Su-hyun, spokesman of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, said the exercise was conducted after Moon directed the military to "display a strong capability to punish" the North if need be.
South Korea and the United States had discussed deploying additional “strategic assets” on the Korean peninsula, the presidential Blue House said in a statement, without giving any more details.
North Korea remained defiant.
“The US should know that it can neither browbeat the DPRK with any economic sanctions and military threats and blackmails nor make the DPRK flinch from the road chosen by itself,” North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun said later on Tuesday, using the initials of the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
North Korea fired what it said was a rocket carrying a communications satellite into orbit over Japan in 2009 after warning of its plans. The United States, Japan and South Korea considered it a ballistic missile test.
Television and radio broadcasters broke into their regular programming with a “J-Alert” warning citizens of the missile launch. Bullet train services were temporarily halted and warnings went out over loudspeakers in towns in Hokkaido.
“I was woken by the missile alert on my cellphone,” said Ayaka Nishijima, 41, an office worker from Morioka, the capital of Iwate prefecture, 300 km (180 miles) south of Cape Erimo.
“I didn’t feel prepared at all. Even if we get these alerts there’s nowhere to run. It’s not like we have a basement or bomb shelter, all we can do is get away from the window,” she told Reuters by text message.
Earlier this month, North Korea threatened to fire four Hwasong-12 missiles into the sea near the US. Pacific territory of Guam after US President Donald Trump warned Pyongyang would face “fire and fury” if it threatened the United States.
Also in early August, the 15-member Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea in response to two long-range missile launches in July.
Some experts said Kim was trying to pressure Washington to the negotiating table with its latest test.
“(North Korea) think that by exhibiting their capability, the path to dialogue will open,” Masao Okonogi, professor emeritus at Japan’s Keio University, said by phone from Seoul.
“That logic, however, is not understood by the rest of the world, so it’s not easy,” he said.
The Japanese military did not attempt to shoot down the missile, which passed over Japanese territory around 6:07 a.m. local time (2107 GMT), Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera said. The missile broke into three pieces and fell into waters off Hokkaido, he said.
Experts say defenses in Japan and South Korea that are designed to hit incoming missiles would struggle to bring down a missile flying high overhead.
In Washington, the Pentagon confirmed the missile flew over Japan but said it did not pose a threat to North America and that it was gathering further information.
The United States and South Korea are technically still at war with the North because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North routinely says it will never give up its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, saying they are necessary to counter perceived hostility from the United States and its allies.