North Korea said on Wednesday it launched a ballistic missile over Japan to counter US and South Korean military drills and as a first step in military action in the Pacific to “contain” the American territory of Guam.
“The current ballistic rocket launching drill like a real war is the first step of the military operation of the [the North’s Korean People’s Army] in the Pacific and a meaningful prelude to containing Guam,” despotic leader Kim Jong Un is quoted as saying by the North’s KCNA news agency.
It came as the United Nations condemned Tuesday’s “outrageous” test, which saw a ballistic missile fly directly over populated cities in Japan’s north - and its government warn citizens to “take cover”.
Earlier this month, North Korea threatened to fire four missiles into the sea near Guam, home to a major US military presence, after President Donald Trump said the North would face “fire and fury” if it threatened the United States.
In a statement the 15-member Security Council said it was of “vital importance” that North Korea take immediate, concrete actions to reduce tensions. However, the US-drafted statement, which was agreed by consensus, does not threaten new sanctions on North Korea.
And landing in Japan just 36 hours after Pyongyang sent a missile over the north of the country, Prime Minister Theresa May insisted the UK would be re-doubling its efforts to curb the North’s weapons testing programme.
“We are very clear that the actions of North Korea are illegal. I think that they are significant actions of provocation,” she said. “I think it is outrageous. That’s why will be working with our international partners, as we have done previously.”
Diplomats say veto-wielding council members China and Russia typically only view a test of a long-range missile or a nuclear weapon as a trigger for further possible sanctions.
China and Russia’s ambassadors to the United Nations said they opposed any unilateral sanctions on North Korea and reiterated calls to halt deployment of a US missile defence system in South Korea.
“I certainly hope that we’ll be able to have a strong resolution following up this ... statement,” Japan’s Ambassador to the United Nations Koro Bessho told reporters after the meeting.
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China is currently discussing the situation with other Security Council members and will make a “necessary response” based on the consensus reached.
“Any measures against North Korea should be under the UN Security Council framework, and should be carried out according to Security Council resolutions,” he told a news briefing.
Unilateral sanctions or those implemented according to a country’s domestic laws, did not accord with international law, Wang added, a reference to unilateral sanctions imposed on Chinese firms and citizens by the United States and Japan.
All options on the table
Tuesday’s test was of the same Hwasong-12 missile Kim had threatened to use on Guam, but the test flight took it in another direction, over northern Japan’s Hokkaido and into the sea.
Trump, who has vowed not to let North Korea develop nuclear missiles that can hit the mainland United States, said the world had received North Korea’s latest message “loud and clear”.
“Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table,” Trump said in a statement on Tuesday.
The Trump administration plans to name a former White House official, Victor Cha, as the next US ambassador to South Korea, according to an administration official.
Cha served as deputy head of the US delegation in multilateral talks with North Korea over its nuclear program during the administration of President George W. Bush.
The North’s latest test launch came as US and South Korean forces conducted annual military exercises on the Korean peninsula, angering Pyongyang which sees the war games as a preparation for invasion.
North Korea has conducted dozens of ballistic missile tests under Kim in defiance of UN sanctions, but firing a projectile over mainland Japan was a rare and provocative move.
Reports of the launch by North Korean media were lacking the usual boasts of technical advances.
The 1,680 miles the missile flew before splashing down was much shorter and at a lower trajectory than that of an earlier launch of the same missile type, Reuters news agency reported.
“It is not clear what new North Korea would have learned from this launch that is relevant to a long-range missile,” missile expert David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists said.
The shorter range points to an intended early cutting of the engine thrust or a possible mechanical problem, as the trajectory taken would not have been useful in simulating re-entry or heating of the missile, Wright wrote in a blog post.
Kim Dong-yup, professor at the Institute for Far East Studies of Kyungnam University in Seoul said firing the missile from a densely populated area near Pyongyang and over Japan suggested North Korea was confident in the missile’s stability.
“I do not think North Korea factored in much military meaning behind yesterday’s missile launch, rather yesterday’s launch was all about North Korea being stubborn,” he said.
“At the same time, North Korea is hinting that there is room for negotiation if the US and South Korea ends the joint military exercises.”