SEOUL — A projectile test launched by North Korea that reached an unusually high altitude before landing in the Sea of Japan may have been a new kind of ballistic missile that can reach further than Pyongyang’s other weapons, Japan’s defense minister said Sunday.
The launch is a direct challenge to the new South Korean president elected four days ago and comes as US, Japanese and European navies gather for joint war games in the Pacific.
It wasn’t immediately clear what type of ballistic missile was launched, although the US Pacific Command said that “the flight is not consistent with an intercontinental ballistic missile.”
Japanese officials, however, said the missile flew for about 30 minutes, traveling about 800 kilometers (500 miles) and reaching an altitude of 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) — a flight pattern that could indicate a previously unseen type of missile.
Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said North Korea might have launched a “new type of missile,” given the altitude and duration of its flight. But she said more analysis was needed.
Inada’s remarks suggest the missile might have been on a “lofted” trajectory, meaning it could have a far longer range than it actually flew. Japan’s Kyodo News said the missile may be capable of covering a range as far as 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) if launched at a normal trajectory, citing unidentified sources.
David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the flight indicates that the missile could have a range of 4,500 kilometers (about 2,800 miles) if flown on a standard, instead of a lofted, trajectory; that would be considerably longer than Pyongyang’s current missiles.
The estimated range of the North’s Musudan missile is about 3,000 kilometers (1,865 miles), Wright said, which is a little less than the distance between the US Pacific island of Guam and North Korea. A North Korean missile would need to travel more than 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) to reach the US West Coast.
Outside militaries will closely analyze what the North fired. While Pyongyang regularly tests shorter-range missiles, it is also working to master the technology needed to field nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the US mainland. Past North Korean missiles have flown farther than Sunday’s test, landing closer to Japan, but this launch follows a series of high-profile failures.
The White House said US President Donald Trump “cannot imagine that Russia is pleased” with the test because the missile landed so close to Russian soil.
In a statement issued Saturday night, the White House press secretary pointed out that the missile landed closer to Russia than to Japan. North Korea has been “a flagrant menace for far too long,” the statement reads.
The latest “provocation” should serve as a call for all nations to implement far stronger sanctions against the North, the statement says, adding that the US maintains its “ironclad commitment” to stand with its allies in the face of the serious threat.
The launch forces the new South Korean leader, Moon Jae-in, to put dealing with Pyongyang, at least for now, above the domestic economic agenda he’d made a priority during his early days in office.
Moon, who favors a softer approach to the North than his conservative predecessors, strongly condemned the launch during an emergency national security meeting, calling it a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions and a serious challenge to international peace and security, according to senior presidential secretary Yoon Young-chan.
“The president expressed deep regret over the fact that this reckless provocation … occurred just days after a new government was launched in South Korea,” Yoon told a televised conference. “The president said we are leaving open the possibility of dialogue with North Korea, but we should sternly deal with a provocation to prevent North Korea from miscalculating.”
Earlier, Japanese officials said the missile landed in the Sea of Japan but outside the country’s exclusive economic zone.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters Sunday that the launch is “absolutely unacceptable” and that Japan will respond resolutely.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that the missile was fired early Sunday morning from near Kusong, in North Phyongan province.
North Korea’s past satellite rocket launches have been called clandestine tests of ICBM technology, but it is not believed to have tested a true intercontinental ballistic missile yet.
The Trump administration has called North Korean ballistic and nuclear efforts unacceptable and has swung between threats of military action and offers to talk as it formulates a policy.
The North’s state media said Saturday the nation will bolster its nuclear capability unless the United States abandons its hostile policy.
“The United States should never expect us to give up our nuclear capability,” the main Rodong newspaper said in a commentary carried by the Korean Central News Agency. It said President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure and engagement” policy is only aimed at “stifling us” and will compel the North to “strengthen our nuclear deterrent at the maximum speed.”
The launch also comes as troops from the US, Japan and two European nations gather near Guam for drills that are partly a message to North Korea. The USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft supercarrier, is also engaging with South Korean navy ships in waters off the Korean Peninsula, according to Seoul’s Defense Ministry.
Moon, the first liberal leader in Seoul in nearly a decade, said as he took his oath of office that he’d be willing to visit the North if the circumstances were right. Trump has also said he’d be “honored” to talk with leader Kim Jong Un under favorable conditions.
On Saturday, a top North Korean diplomat in charge of US relations, Choe Son Hui, told reporters in Beijing that Pyongyang would be willing to meet with the Trump administration for negotiations “if the conditions are set.” She did not elaborate.