SEOUL/TOKYO (AFP, Reuters) – North Korea fired a ballistic missile on Sunday (May 14) in defiance of calls to rein in its weapons programme, South Korean and US officials said, days after a new leader took office in the South, pledging to engage it in dialogue.
The US Pacific Command said it was assessing the type of missile but it was “not consistent with an intercontinental ballistic missile”. Japanese Defence Minister Tomomi Inada said the missile could be of a new type.
The missile flew 700km and reached an altitude of more than 2,000km, according to officials in South Korea and Japan, further and higher than an intermediate-range missile North Korea successfully tested in February from the same region of Kusong, northwest of its capital, Pyongyang.
North Korea is widely believed to be developing an intercontinental missile tipped with a nuclear weapon that is capable of reaching the United States. US President Donald Trump has vowed not to let that happen.
Experts said Sunday’s test showed a considerably longer range than missiles North Korea had previously tested, meaning it had likely made improvements since its February test. The reported altitude would indicate the missile was launched at a high trajectory.
David Wright, co-director of the UCS Global Security Program and a missile expert, said if the missile had been fired at a standard trajectory, it would have had a maximum range of about 4,500km.
Kim Dong Yub, Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said he estimated a standard trajectory firing would give it a range of 6,000km, meaning it would be capable of reaching Hawaii. An intercontinental ballistic missile is considered to have a range of more than 6,000km.
Japan said the missile flew for 30 minutes before dropping into the sea between North Korea’s east coast and Japan. The North has consistently test-fired missiles in that direction. “If that report ... is correct, then the launch may indeed represent a new missile with a long range,” said Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, referring the estimated altitude of more than 2,000 km.
“It is definitely concerning,” McDowell said.
The move came days after President Moon Jae In took office in the South pledging to engage in dialogue with Pyongyang.
The launch at 5:27am Seoul time (4:27am Singapore time), from a region named Kusong located north-west of Pyongyang, came two weeks after North Korea fired a missile that disintegrated minutes into flight, marking its fourth consecutive failure since March.
The launch is the first since a new liberal president took office in South Korea on Wednesday saying dialogue as well as pressure must be used to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula and stop the North’s weapons pursuit.
Moon condemned the North’s latest missile launch as a “reckless provocation”, staged days after his inauguration in an apparent test of the new administration.
“The president... expressed deep regret over the North’s reckless provocation staged only days after the beginning of the new administration in the South,” his spokesman Yoon Young Chan said at a briefing after Moon held a meeting with national security advisers.
“The president said while South Korea remains open to the possibility of dialogue with North Korea, it is only possible when North Korea shows a change in attitude."
Japan swiftly issued a protest. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said North Korea’s firing of a ballistic missile was a violation of UN resolutions and that Japan strongly protested the action.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe repeated the protest in comments to reporters.
"North Korea’s repeated missile launches are a grave threat to our country and a clear violation of UN resolutions,” Mr Abe told reporters, adding Japan will stay in close touch with the United States and South Korea.
Abe said the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea had spoken after the firing, and his top security adviser had a call with US national security adviser H.R. McMaster. There was no immediate reaction from China.
Delegations from the United States, South Korea and North Korea are in Beijing for a conference on a plan for a new Silk Road. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is also there.
The North attempted but failed to test-launch ballistic missiles four consecutive times in the past two months but has conducted a variety of missile testing since the beginning of last year at an unprecedented pace.
Weapons experts and government officials believe the North has accomplished some technical progress with those tests.
US President Donald Trump warned in an interview with Reuters in late April that a “major, major conflict” with the North was possible, but he would prefer a diplomatic outcome to the dispute over its nuclear and missile programmes.