Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says North Korea’s firing of an unidentified ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan is “absolutely intolerable.”
Abe made the comment late Saturday alongside U.S. President Donald Trump at a hastily called news conference in an ornate room in Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, where Abe has been visiting with Trump this weekend.
“I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent,” Trump said in his terse comments at the news conference. The North Korean test is widely interpreted as a challenge to the Trump administration.
North Korea fired the missile into the Sea of Japan early Sunday.
The U.S. Defense Department said late Saturday, “The launch of a medium- or intermediate-range ballistic missile occurred near the northwestern city of Kusong,” noting it was tracked into the Sea of Japan and “never posed a threat to North America.”
Pyongyang issued no statement about the launch, but experts said the rocket was most likely a model capable of reaching targets in Japan, but not the U.S.
North Korea detonated two unauthorized nuclear test explosions last year and launched nearly two dozen rockets in continuing efforts to expand its nuclear weapons and missile programs. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared in a speech on New Year’s Day that his country has “reached the final stage” in its program to build ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile), but Western experts have been skeptical about his forecast.
At the time, Trump answered Kim’s ICBM boast with one of his trademark Twitter messages: “It won’t happen!”
Harry Kazianis, the director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington said North Korea wanted to provoke Trump with Sunday’s missile launch, but did not want to risk an ICBM test that might fail.
“I think the North Koreans would be a little bit afraid that if (an ICBM) test failed that would obviously not make them look very good,” he said.
Trump briefed on launch, monitoring situation
When he welcomed Abe to Washington Friday, Trump emphasized that the United States is committed to the security of its key Asian ally.
“We will work together to promote our shared interests,” the president said at the White House, including “defending against the North Korean missile and nuclear threat.”
During the 2016 presidential election Trump raised concerns about U.S. military spending overseas, but since taking office, President Trump and his Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis have emphasized America’s commitment to support its allies in Asia against the growing North Korean nuclear threat. Mattis’ first trip abroad was to Asia.
The United States has repeatedly vowed it will never accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed nation.
Same launch site used 4 months ago
South Korean military officials said the missile was launched at 7:55 a.m. local time (2255 Saturday UTC) from a military site at Banghyeon — the same place where the North test-launched powerful Musudan rockets twice last October. Such missiles are estimated to have an effective range of about 3,000 kilometers (1,865 miles).
Officials said the rocket crossed the Korean Peninsula from the launch site in western North Korea and headed east over the Sea of Japan, after a flight path of about 500 kilometers, (300 miles).
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga denounced the North Korean missile launch as an “as act of provocation to Japan and the region” and noted that it was purposely timed to disrupt the prime minster’s summit with Trump.
South Korea convened a national security meeting Sunday in response to the missile launch. South Korea’s Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn said Seoul will work with the international community “to punish the North (for its missile launch).”
“North Korea’s repeated provocations show the Kim Jong Un regime’s nature of irrationality, maniacally obsessed in its nuclear and missile development,” the South’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
North Korea-watchers reported late in January that the North Korean military had loaded missiles aboard two mobile launchers, a sign that test-firings could be imminent. They noted at the time, however, that the missiles appeared to be no more than 15 meters long, which would tend to rule out the possibility that a long-range weapon was involved.
Analysts are divided over how close Pyongyang is to realizing its full military ambitions, especially since it has never successfully test-fired an ICBM. However, most experts agree that the North has made considerable progress since Kim took over absolute power in the country following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.
Talks broke down in 2009
For more than a decade, Washington and a vast majority of world governments have demanded that North Korea denuclearize the Korean peninsula. However, Western leaders have yet to devise a plan that would either compel the North to cooperate or create incentives for it to do so.
China-sponsored talks between Pyongyang and a six-nation panel have been stalled since 2009, when the communist North pulled out of the negotiations. The North had carried out its first underground nuclear test explosion three years before the talks broke down.
Washington has since said the six-party talks could not resume until Kim’s regime in Pyongyang would recommit itself to halting all nuclear tests and scrapping its nuclear development program. That policy was agreed to during the administration of former President Barack Obama, and Trump’s government has reaffirmed it.
Pyongyang has so far rejected Western overtures and continues to resist world leaders’ attempts to bring it into compliance with a string of United Nations resolutions.
VOA’s Brian Padden in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.