SEOUL/TOKYO (Reuters) – Nuclear-armed North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile farther than ever before on Tuesday, sending it soaring over Japan for the first time in five years and prompting a warning for residents there to take cover.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spoke by phone and condemned the test in the “strongest terms,” calling it a danger to the Japanese people, and Biden reinforced the “ironclad” U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan, the White House said.
Watch as sirens blared over Tokyo:
The United States will also ask the United Nations Security Council to meet publicly on Wednesday on North Korea, a U.S. official said.
It was the first North Korean missile to follow such a trajectory since 2017, and its estimated 4,600 km (2,850 mile) range was the longest travelled by a North Korean test missile, which are usually “lofted” high into space to avoid flying over neighbouring countries.
In response to the test, U.S. and South Korean warplanes practiced bombing a target in the Yellow Sea and fighter jets from the United States and Japan also carried out joint drills over the Sea of Japan, the U.S. military said.
Japan warned its citizens to take cover and suspended some train services when the missile passed over its north before falling into the Pacific Ocean.
It was the latest in an escalating cycle of muscle flexing. A U.S. aircraft carrier made a port call in South Korea for the first time since 2018 on Sept. 23, and North Korea has conducted five launches in the last 10 days.
The period has also seen joint drills by the United States, South Korea and Japan, and a visit to the fortified border between the Koreas by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who accused the North of undermining security.
North Korea accuses the United States and its allies of threatening it with exercises and defence build-ups.
Recent tests had drawn relatively muted responses from Washington, which is focused on the war in Ukraine as well as other domestic and foreign crises.
But the U.S. military has stepped up displays of force and the White House National Security Council called the latest test “dangerous and reckless.”
A White House statement said Biden and Kishda “confirmed they would continue to closely coordinate their immediate and longer-term response bilaterally, trilaterally with the Republic of Korea, and with the international community.”
“They resolved to continue every effort to limit the DPRK’s ability to support its unlawful ballistic missile and weapons of mass destruction programs,” it said
After Tuesday’s test, a South Korean air force F-15K jet dropped a pair of guided bombs on a target off its west coast, in what Seoul called a demonstration of precision strike capability against the source of North Korean provocations.
Japan said it took no steps to shoot the missile down but Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada said it would not rule out any options, including counterattack capabilities, as it looks to strengthen its defences.
South Korea also said it would boost its military and increase allied cooperation.
U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson called the North Korean test “destabilizing” and said it showed North Korea’s “blatant disregard for United Nations Security Council resolutions and international safety norms.”
The launch violates U.N. Security Council resolutions, which have imposed sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Officials in Tokyo and Seoul said the missile flew 4,500 to 4,600 km (2,850 miles) to a maximum altitude of about 1,000 km (620 miles).
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said it appeared to have been an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) launched from North Korea’s Jagang Province. North Korea has launched several recent tests from there, including multiple missiles that it said were “hypersonic”.
The initial details suggested the missile may have been the Hwasong-12 IRBM, which North Korea unveiled in 2017 as part of what it said was a plan to strike U.S. military bases in Guam, said Kim Dong-yup, a former South Korea Navy officer who teaches at Kyungnam University.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby told Fox News the United States was still analysing the test “so we can better understand what capabilities they put in the air yesterday.”
The Hwasong-12 was used in 2017 tests that overflew Japan, and Kim noted it was also test fired from Jagang in January.
Flying a missile such a long distance allows North Korea’s scientists to test under more realistic conditions, said Ankit Panda of the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Compared to the usual highly lofted trajectory, this allows them to expose a long-range reentry vehicle to thermal loads and atmospheric reentry stresses that are more representative of the conditions they’d endure in real-world use,” he said.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol called the test “reckless” and said it would bring a decisive response from his country, its allies and the international community.
Speaking to reporters in Tokyo, Kishida called North Korea’s action “barbaric”.
The launch over Japan was “not a productive path forward” but Washington remained open to talks, Daniel Kritenbrink, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, said during an online event hosted by the Institute for Corean-American Studies.
South Korea’s defence minister, Lee Jong-sup, told parliament North Korea had completed preparations for a nuclear test and it might use a smaller weapon meant for operational use, or a device with a higher yield than in previous tests.
Lee said it was difficult to predict when North Korea would conduct its seventh nuclear test, but lawmakers briefed by intelligence officials last week said a window could be between China’s Communist Party Congress this month and U.S. mid-term elections in November.
Kritenbrink said a nuclear test was “likely awaiting a political decision”, warning such a “dangerous” act would represent “a grave escalation that would seriously threaten regional and international stability and security.”
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in Seoul, and Chang-Ran Kim and Kantaro Komiya in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Phil Stewart and David Brunnstrom and in Washington; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Leslie Adler, Chris Reese, Lincoln Feast, Gerry Doyle and Jonathan Oatis)