North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un has promised more missile flights over Japan, insisting his nuclear-armed nation’s provocative launch was a mere “curtain-raiser”, in the face of UN condemnation and US warnings of severe repercussions.
The Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile that Pyongyang unleashed on Tuesday represented a major escalation of tensions over its weapons programmes.
In recent weeks it has threatened to send a salvo of missiles towards the US territory of Guam, while President Donald Trump has warned of raining “fire and fury” on the North.
After the latest launch Trump said negotiations were “not the answer”, tweeting: “The US has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!”
Trump had earlier said that “all options” were on the table, reviving his implied threat of pre-emptive US military action just days after congratulating himself that Kim appeared to be “starting to respect us”.
The UN Security Council — which has already imposed seven sets of sanctions on Pyongyang — said in a unanimous statement the North’s “outrageous” actions “are not just a threat to the region, but to all UN member states”.
Both the North’s key ally China and Russia, which also has ties to Pyongyang, backed the US-drafted declaration, but it will not immediately lead to new or tightened sanctions.
The Rodong Sinmun newspaper, mouthpiece of the North’s ruling party, on Wednesday carried more than 20 pictures of the launch near Pyongyang. One showed Kim smiling broadly at a desk with a map of the Northwest Pacific, surrounded by aides.
Another showed him gazing upwards as the missile rose into the air.
South Korea’s military said Tuesday that it had travelled around 2,700 kilometres (1,700 miles) and reached a maximum altitude of 550 kilometres.
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) cited Kim as saying that “more ballistic rocket launching drills with the Pacific as a target in the future” were necessary.
Tuesday’s launch was a “meaningful prelude to containing Guam, advanced base of invasion”, he said, and a “curtain-raiser” for the North’s “resolute countermeasures” against ongoing US-South Korean military exercises which the North regards as a rehearsal for invasion.
Wednesday’s statement was the first time the North has acknowledged sending a missile over Japan’s main islands. Two of its rockets previously did so, in 1998 and 2009, but on both occasions Pyongyang claimed they were space launch vehicles.
Independent analysts posted images online suggesting that Kim’s map showed an intended flight path of 3,200 kilometres, implying that the missile may have fallen 500 kilometres short. A South Korean defence official told AFP they were still analysing the North’s images.
‘Enough is enough’
Tuesday’s missile overflight triggered consternation in world capitals and on the ground, with blaring sirens and text message alerts in Japan warning people to take cover.
“Threatening and destabilising actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world,” Trump said in a statement. “All options are on the table.”
At the Security Council emergency meeting US ambassador Nikki Haley warned that “enough is enough”.
“It’s unacceptable,” Haley said. “They have violated every single UN Security Council resolution that we’ve had, and so I think something serious has to happen.”
But US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said there was still room for diplomacy in dealing with Pyongyang.
“We’re never out of diplomatic solutions,” Mattis said as he entered a meeting with South Korea Defense Minister Song Young-moo.
Despite Washington’s rhetoric, US officials privately echo the warning by Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon — that a pre-emptive strike against the North is impossible given its capacity to inflict massive retaliation on the South.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Wednesday that Beijing would make a “necessary response” to the launch, but said consensus would be needed on any fresh set of sanctions.
He called for a resumption of talks and urged all parties to avoid actions that “may further escalate tensions”.
Pyongyang last month carried out its first two successful tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile, apparently bringing much of the US mainland into range, but the Pentagon said Tuesday’s launch was judged not to have represented a threat.
Any missile fired by the North at Guam would have to pass over Japan, and analysts told AFP that Pyongyang appeared to have chosen Tuesday’s trajectory as a “half-way house” option to send a message without crossing a red line.
Nevertheless Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was nevertheless visibly unsettled, dubbing the launch an “unprecedented, serious and grave threat.”
KCNA said the launch was timed to mark the 107th anniversary of the “disgraceful” Japan-Korea treaty of 1910, under which Tokyo colonised the Korean peninsula.
It ushered in a period of oppressive rule that only ended with Japan’s defeat in the Second World War and is resented by Koreans on both sides of the divided peninsula, complicating the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul — both of them US allies.