NORTH KOREA — North Korea fired a ballistic missile Sunday, South Korean and the US officials said, in the first such test by Pyongyang since US President Donald Trump took office.
The missile, which sources said landed in the Sea of Japan, was fired as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited President Trump in the United States.
“North Korea’s most recent missile launch is absolutely intolerable. North Korea must fully comply with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions,” Abe told a news conference at Palm Beach, Florida.
North Korea is prohibited from carrying out ballistic missile launches under UN Security Council resolutions aimed in part at curbing the country’s development of nuclear weapons.
Trump spoke after Abe and gave a one-sentence statement: “I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100%.”
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said that the fact that the launch came as Abe met with Trump made it “a clear provocation to Japan and the region.”
Tokyo has already lodged protests against North Korea via its embassy in Beijing, he said.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told CNN that the missile appears to be a modified intermediate-range Musudan level missile. Earlier analysis had guessed it to be a shorter-range Rodong.
They ruled out the possibility that it was a longer-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) — which are usually designed to carry nuclear warheads — based on the flight distance.
Sources told CNN that the missile traveled 500 kilometers (310 miles) before landing in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, and that it was launched from North Pyongan Province.
Acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn said: “The South Korean government and the international community are working together to take punitive actions appropriate for this launch.”
Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, spoke to his South Korean counterpart Kim Kwan Jin, according to the South Korean President’s office. They condemned the launch and agreed “to seek all possible options” to deter Pyongyang in the future.
South Korean security officials were holding an emergency meeting about the launch.
“Today’s ballistic missile test by North Korea is the first ballistic missile test this year since 24 launches last year,” said a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Cho June-Hyuck.
“This is a clear violation of the (UN Security Council resolution) and threat to peace and security of the Korean peninsula and the entire international community. The government strongly condemns it.”
North Korea conducted an unprecedented number of missile tests in 2016 and a satellite launch that experts said was a sign it has cleared significant hurdles toward ICBM technology. But until Sunday, it hadn’t tested a ballistic missile since October 20.
Step toward missile that can hit US?
In January, US and South Korean officials told CNN that North Korea might be readying two ICBMs for a test launch in the near future, though some analysts dispute how close Pyongang actually is to testing such a missile.
But Ret. Lt. General Mark Hertling said Sunday’s test would help the North Koreans improve their missile technology, and could help in their development of an ICBM.
“That’s the goal of the North Korean politicians,” he said.
“This intermediate ballistic missile is certainly dangerous. It has a greater range than some of the Musudan missiles that they have been testing prior to that. And it’s not only a concern for the United States to hit the mainland, but it also has concerns for all of our Asia partners.”
Hertling said because of the poor accuracy of North Korean missiles, missiles are fired at the Sea of Japan. North Korea wants to see how far the missile will fly and whether it will fall apart.
Pyongyang has been steadily working to improve its missile and weapons capability, conducting a fifth nuclear test in September.
It isn’t clear whether North Korea has the ability yet to put a nuclear warhead on its intermediate-range missiles. But while many experts think North Korea isn’t yet able to make it a global threat, US commanders say they need to be prepared for the possibility.
“Combining nuclear warheads with ballistic missile technology in the hands of a volatile leader like Kim Jong Un is a recipe for disaster,” Adm. Harry Harris, the head of the US military’s Pacific Command, said in a December speech.