PALM BEACH, FLORIDA/SEOUL (REUTERS, NYTIMES) - US President Donald Trump said that the United States stands fully behind Japan in the aftermath of North Korea's latest missile launch on Sunday (Feb 12), while Tokyo described the test as a "provocation to Japan and the region".
"I just want everybody to understand, and fully know, that the United States of America is behind Japan, our great ally, 100 per cent," Trump told reporters during a joint statement with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Trump made no further comments.
Abe denounced the launch as “absolutely intolerable” while top government spokesman Yoshihide Suge told reporters in Tokyo it was “clearly a provocation to Japan and the region”.
North Korea is barred under UN resolutions from any use of ballistic missile technology but six sets of UN sanctions since Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006 have failed to halt its drive for what it insists are defensive weapons.
Last year the country conducted numerous tests and launches in its quest to develop a nuclear weapons system capable of hitting the US mainland.
South Korea’s military said the missile launched on Sunday was probably an intermediate range Musudan class, revising its earlier assessment that it was likely to have been a medium-range missile.
“The missile fired around Panghyon in the city of Kusong is likely to be an improved version of a Musudan missile,” South Korea’s Office of Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. The missile flew about 500km. A Musudan is designed to travel up to 3,000-4,000km.
The US military likewise determined it was a medium- or intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Pentagon said.
“US Strategic Command systems detected and tracked what we assess was a North Korean missile launch at 4:55pm CST,” it said.
“The launch of a medium- or intermediate-range ballistic missile occurred near the northwestern city of Kusong.” It added: “The missile was tracked over North Korea and into the Sea of Japan.”
The launch never posed a threat to North America, it said, but did not state whether it believed the launch had been a success or failure.
Seoul-based academic Yang Moo Jin said the latest test was “a celebratory launch” to mark the Feb 16 birthday of
Kim Jong Il, late ruler and father of current leader Kim Jong Un.
Pyongyang often celebrates key anniversaries involving current and former leaders with missile launches, Yang, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, told AFP.
South Korea’s acting president Hwang Gyo Ahn vowed a “corresponding punishment” in response to the launch, which came on the heels of a visit to Seoul by new US Defence Secretary James Mattis earlier this month.
Mattis, who visited South Korea on his first official trip abroad, agreed with South Korea to boost the allies’ joint defence abilities against North Korea.
The two allies also agreed to push ahead with their plan to deploy an advanced US missile defense system known as Thaad in South Korea by the end of the year, despite a strong protest from China.
Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, spoke to his South Korean counterpart Kim Kwan Jin on the phone after the latest North Korean missile test and agreed to “seek all possible options” to curb future provocations by the North, Seoul’s presidential office said in a statement.
The Pentagon said its forces would “remain vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and are fully committed to working closely with our Republic of Korea and Japanese allies to maintain security.”
FULL RANGE OF OPTIONS
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Trump administration had been expecting a North Korean “provocation” soon after taking office and would consider a full range of options in a response to Pyongyang’s missile test, but calibrated to show US resolve while avoiding escalation.
The new administration was also likely to step up pressure on China to rein in North Korea, reflecting Mr Trump’s previously stated view that Beijing had not done enough on this front, the official said.
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.” Trump made the comment at a news conference with Mr Abe at the White House at the start of Mr Abe's visit.
In their joint statement, they urged North Korea “to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs 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 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.