In a brazen rejection of tough new U.N. sanctions, North Korea fired an intermediate-range missile over Hokkaido that flew about 3,700 kilometers before splashing down far out in the Pacific Ocean on Friday — the second such launch in just over two weeks.
The Japanese government said the missile was launched at around 6:57 a.m. and fell into waters about 2,200 kilometers east of Hokkaido’s Cape Erimo at around 7:16 a.m.
At a news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the missile had flown about 3,700 kilometers, while reaching a maximum height of about 800 kilometers, meaning it had not been sent on a “lofted,” or steep, trajectory. Lofting its missiles shortens their range but also makes interception exceedingly difficult.
“The Self-Defense Forces detected and tracked the missile perfectly from the launch through the landing,” Suga claimed.
“We didn’t intercept it because no damage to Japanese territory was expected,” he added.
Suga said Japan had condemned the launch in the “strongest words possible.”
He told reporters earlier at the Prime Minister’s Office that the situation was similar to the one on Aug. 29, when the nuclear-armed North fired an intermediate-range Hwasong-12 missile over Hokkaido, the first unannounced launch of a missile designed to carry a nuclear payload to fly over Japan.
The launch came hours before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned from a diplomatic tour of India early Friday.
Abe, speaking to reporters in Tokyo, said that the international community must “firmly unite to send out a clear message” to Pyongyang.
The launch “has again made it clear that (United Nations) resolutions calling for sanctions should be completely implemented,” he said.
“We need to have North Korea understand that they will have no bright future if they keep going this way,” Abe added.
On Monday, the U.N. Security Council approved a tough, new U.S.-drafted sanctions resolution that included a ban on textile exports and a restriction on the shipments of oil products, among other measures. It came just one month after the Security Council decided to ban exports of coal, lead and seafood.
Later Friday, Foreign Minister Taro Kono spoke over the phone with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera held a teleconference with his counterpart, James Mattis.
Speaking to reporters in Tokyo, Kono said that he and Tillerson had agreed that Tokyo, Washington and Seoul would urge other U.N. member states to fully implement economic sanctions slapped on the reclusive regime earlier this week.
Kono also said that Japan, the U.S. and South Korea had jointly called for an emergency meeting of U.N. Security Council, which would be held Friday in New York.
“North Korea has repeatedly conducted missile-firings and nuclear tests. This is a strong challenge to the international community,” Kono said.
“We want (Pyongyang) to get to the table of dialogue after making clear its intention to denuclearize,” Kono added.
In a statement, Tillerson said slammed the launch, saying Pyongyang’s “continued provocations only deepen North Korea’s diplomatic and economic isolation.”
“North Korea’s provocative missile launch represents the second time the people of Japan, a treaty ally of the United States, have been directly threatened in recent weeks,” he said.
In a possible threat of even stronger measures to be taken at the U.N., the top U.S. diplomat urged “all nations to take new measures against the Kim regime,” adding that the recent sanctions “represent the floor, not the ceiling, of the actions we should take.”
Tillerson also singled out China and Russia, which he said supplies the North with most of its oil and is its largest employer of forced labor, respectively.
“China and Russia must indicate their intolerance for these reckless missile launches by taking direct actions of their own,” Tillerson said.
Monday’s U.N. sanctions were ultimately watered down to win the support of Beijing and Moscow, both veto-wielding members of the Security Council, after the U.S. had initially distributed a tougher draft of the resolution that included a full embargo on oil exports to North Korea.
While Japan did not attempt to intercept the missile, the launch did trigger the nation’s J-Alert warning system, which advised people in 11 prefectures and Hokkaido to take precautions. The 11 that received the warning included Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Yamagata, Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Niigata and Nagano prefectures.
The U.S. military’s Pacific Command said in a statement that it had also detected and tracked the apparent intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM).
It said the missile did not pose a threat to Guam, some 3,400 kilometers from Pyongyang, though experts said the launch proved the North could viably target the U.S. territory, home to key American military bases.
“Our commitment to the defense of our allies, including the Republic of Korea and Japan, in the face of these threats, remains ironclad,” Pacific Command spokesman Cmdr. Dave Benham said. “We remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies from any attack or provocation.”
South Korea’s military, meanwhile, said the launch had originated from Sunan International Airport on the outskirts of Pyongyang, the Yonhap news agency reported.
In response to the firing, the South Korean military had fired a Hyunmoo-II missile into the Sea of Japan at a distance roughly equal to one that would hit Susan airport, the “origin of provocation,” Yonhap reported.
Suga, the Japanese government’s top spokesman, said it was checking to see if there had been any reported damage to the areas that received the J-Alert warning. Kyodo News has earlier reported that East Japan Railway Co. had temporarily halted all trains and shinkansen operating in those areas.
The government had warned people not to approach anything suspicious that may be related to the missile, urging them to report it immediately to police, firefighters or the coast guard.
The launch comes on the heels of Pyongyang’s claimed successful test of a hydrogen bomb capable of being loaded onto an intercontinental ballistic missile on Sept. 3.
The nuclear test and the North’s two launches in July of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching a broad swath of the United States have presented the U.S. and its allies with a new and more potent challenge.
A North Korean state agency had threatened Thursday to use nuclear weapons to “sink” Japan and reduce the United States to “ashes and darkness” for backing the U.N. Security Council resolution.
The North had called its Aug. 29 missile launch over Japan a “meaningful prelude” to containing Guam and the start of more ballistic missile launches toward the Pacific Ocean. Any launch toward Guam would have to overfly Japan.
“The North Koreans have made a strategic decision to roll out their capability as soon as possible,” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. “That means going hell for leather in 2017.”
Graham called Friday’s firing “the longest-range in North Korea’s history.”
“It ticks new, full-range boxes for the Hwasong-12, which is proving itself to be their most successful missile design to date,” he said. “So, it marks another rung up the development ladder to full IOC (Initial operational capability) for their flagship IRBM. And proves, in passing, it can reach Guam when launched on a normal ballistic trajectory.”
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