North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for more weapons launches targeting the Pacific Ocean to advance his country’s ability to contain Guam, state media said on Wednesday, a day after Pyongyang for the first time flew a ballistic missile designed to carry a nuclear payload over Japan.
Tuesday’s aggressive missile launch, likely the longest ever from North Korea over a close US ally, sends a clear message of defiance as Washington and Seoul conduct annual military drills.
The Korean Central News Agency said the launch was a “muscle-flexing” countermeasure to the Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint exercises that conclude on Thursday.
Pyongyang views the drills as invasion rehearsals and often conducts weapons tests and escalates its rhetoric when they are held.
The KCNA report said the missile was an intermediate-range Hwasong-12, which the North first successfully tested in May and threatened to fire into waters near Guam earlier in August.
Kim expressed “great satisfaction” over the launch that he called a “meaningful prelude” to containing Guam and said North Korea would continue to watch the US demeanour before it decides future actions, KCNA said. The US territory is home to key US military bases that North Korea finds threatening.
Kim also said it’s “necessary to positively push forward the work for putting the strategic force on a modern basis by conducting more ballistic rocket launching drills with the Pacific as a target in the future.”
The launch seemed designed to show that North Korea can back up a threat to target Guam, if it chooses to do so, while also establishing a potentially dangerous precedent that could see future missiles flying over Japan.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile traveled around 2,700 kilometres (1,677 miles) and reached a maximum height of 550 kilometres (341 miles) as it flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
US President Donald Trump said North Korea had signalled its “contempt for its neighbours” and that “all options are on the table” in terms of a US response. Trump said in his statement that “threatening and destabilising actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world.”
Any new test worries Washington and its allies because it presumably puts North Korea a step closer to its goal of an arsenal of nuclear missiles that can reliably target the United States. Tuesday’s test, however, looks especially aggressive to Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.
North Korea has conducted launches at an unusually fast pace this year 13 times, Seoul says and some analysts believe it could have viable long-range nuclear missiles before the end of Trump’s first term in early 2021.
Seoul says that while North Korea has twice before fired rockets it said were carrying satellites over Japan in 1998 and 2009, it has never before used a ballistic missile, which is unambiguously designed for military strikes.
The North still claimed on Wednesday that its recent launch “had no impact on the security of the neighbouring countries.” Some outside observers said launching a road-mobile missile from an airport runway could demonstrate the North’s ability to fire its missiles from anywhere in the country.
Tuesday’s missile landed nowhere near Guam, but firing a Hwasong-12 so soon after the threat may be a way for North Korea to show it could follow through if it chose to do so.
Guam is 3,400 kilometres (2,110 miles) away from North Korea, but South Korea’s military said the North may have fired the missile at a shorter range.
North Korea will no doubt be watching the world’s reaction to see if it can use the same flight path for future launches.
Japanese officials made their usual strongly worded condemnations of the launch.
“We will do our utmost to protect people’s lives,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said. “This reckless act of launching a missile that flies over our country is an unprecedented, serious and important threat.”
Tokyo said there was no reported damage from the missile.
Residents on Hokkaido were warned by loudspeakers, phone alerts and an email that told them to stay indoors.
The launch was also condemned by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and a number of other countries.