SEOUL/WASHINGTON/TOKYO (REUTERS, NYT, AFP) - North Korea fired a ballistic missile on Sunday (Feb 12), the first since Mr Donald Trump became US president and just as he was hosting Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The missile, launched around 7.55am from Banghyon air base in the western province of North Pyongan Province, flew east towards the Sea of Japan, South Korea's defence ministry said.
"The concrete type of the ballistic missile has yet to be identified", a defence ministry spokesman told AFP.
The launch was absolutely unacceptable, Mr Abe said at a joint news conference on Saturday with Mr Trump in Florida.
The South’s foreign ministry condemned the launch, saying it was a grave threat to peace and safety on the Korean peninsula, and a clear violation of resolutions by the UN Security Council.
“North Korea’s repeated provocations show the Kim Jong Un regime’s nature of irrationality, maniacally obsessed in its nuclear and missile development,” the ministry said in a statement.
The launch came as Mr Trump was hosting Japan’s prime minister, Mr Shinzo Abe. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the missile was launched right after the US-Japan meeting and was clearly seen as an act of provocation to Japan and the region.
Japan will protest to North Korea through diplomatic routes via Beijing, Pyongyang's strongest ally, said Mr Suga.
Mr Trump has been briefed on the missile launched by North Korea, and the White House is continuing to monitor the situation, a White House official said.
“We are aware of the missile launch by North Korea. The President has been briefed and we are continuing to closely monitor the situation,” the official said.
The missile was probably not an intercontinental ballistic missile, a US official said on condition of anonymity. He provided no further details. A Pentagon official had said earlier the US had detected the launch.
The test of an intercontinental-range system would be especially provocative because it would mean North Korea was trying to develop the ability to strike the United States.
The launch came less than two days after Mr Trump said Friday that defending against nuclear and missile threats from North Korea was a “very, very high priority.” He made the comment at a news conference with Mr Abe at the White House. In their joint statement, they urged North Korea “to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and not to take any further provocative actions.”
The missile launched Sunday appeared not to have been an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, that the North has said it is ready to launch, South Korean officials said. But they said they believed that the North had been using the Musudan, its intermediate-range missile, to develop and test some ICBM technologies.
North Korea has deployed and often tested short-range Scud and midrange Rodong ballistic missiles that can reach most of South Korea and Japan, but it has had a spotty record in test-launching the Musudan, its only missile with sufficient range to reach US military bases in the Pacific, including those on Guam.
North Korea’s last Musudan test ended in failure in October.
In a New Year’s Day speech, Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, said his country had reached a “final stage” in preparing for its first test of an ICBM. That drew a Twitter post the next day from Trump that said, “It won’t happen!”
North Korea has since warned that it could test-launch an ICBM “anytime and anywhere,” in its first challenge to the new president.
The US defence secretary, James Mattis, visited South Korea on his first official trip abroad and agreed with South Korea to boost the allies’ joint defense abilities against North Korea. The two allies also agreed to push ahead with their plan to deploy an advanced US missile defence system known as Thaad in South Korea by the end of the year, despite a strong protest from China.
Although North Korea has vowed to develop the ability to attack the United States with nuclear warheads and has tested missiles that can reach throughout the Korean Peninsula and its vicinity, it has never tested a missile that could fly across the Pacific.
It remains unclear how close North Korea has come to building a reliable ICBM, although it has boasted in the past year of successfully testing crucial technologies, such as long-range missile engines and heat shields for an ICBM.