North Korea on Tuesday conducted its longest-ever weapons test, a nuclear-capable ballistic missile that flew over Japan and could reach the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam and beyond, forcing the Japanese government to issue evacuation alerts and halt trains.
The South Korean and U.S. militaries responded by launching fighter jets which fired weapons at a target off South Korea’s west coast in a show of strength against North Korea.
The North Korean missile launch was its most provocative weapons demonstration this year, as it pushes to develop a fully fledged nuclear arsenal capable of threatening the U.S. mainland and its allies with the goal of wresting concessions from those countries, some experts say.
North Korea has test-fired about 40 missiles over about 20 different launch events this year as its leader, Kim Jong Un, refuses to return to nuclear diplomacy with the United States.
The United States strongly condemned North Korea’s “dangerous and reckless decision” to launch what it described as a “long-range ballistic missile” over Japan.
“The United States will continue its efforts to limit (North Korea’s) ability to advance its prohibited ballistic missile and weapons of mass destruction programs, including with allies and U.N. partners,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
South Korea and Japan earlier said the missile had an intermediate or longer range. If the launch involved a long-range missile, it could be a test of a weapon capable of targeting the U.S. homeland, some experts say.
The launch is the fifth round of weapons tests by North Korea in the past 10 days. The testing spree is an apparent response to two sets of military drills -- one between Washington and Seoul and the other involving Washington, Seoul and Tokyo -- off the Korean Peninsula’s east coast last week.
North Korea regards such drills involving the United States as an invasion rehearsal. It was expected to react strongly this time because both exercises involved a U.S. aircraft carrier, which North Korea views as more provocative.
Japanese authorities alerted residents in its northeastern regions to evacuate to shelters, in the first “J-alert” since 2017 when North Korea fired an intermediate-range Hwasong-12 missile twice over Japan in a span of weeks during a previous run of weapons tests.
Trains were suspended in the Hokkaido and Aomori regions until the government issued a notice that the North Korean missile appeared to have landed in the Pacific. In Sapporo city, the prefectural capital of Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido, subways were also temporarily halted, with stations packed with morning commuters.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters the launch “is a reckless act and I strongly condemn it.”
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said North Korea’s “reckless nuclear provocations” would meet a stern response from the South and the broader international community. His military separately warned that North Korea’s repeated missile launches would deepen its international isolation and prompt Seoul and Washington to bolster their deterrence capacities.
Later Tuesday, four U.S. F-16 fighter jets and four South Korean F-15s conducted a joint strike drill in which one of the South Korean planes fired two precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs into an island target. The exercise was aimed at demonstrating the allies’ ability to accurately strike North Korean targets with “overwhelming force,” the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
The missile’s flight distance shows it has enough range to hit Guam, home to U.S. military bases that have sent advanced warplanes to the Korean Peninsula in shows of force during past periods of tension with North Korea. In 2017, North Korea threatened to make “an enveloping fire” near Guam with Hwasong-12 missiles amid rising animosities with the then-Trump administration.
North Korea last test-fired a Hwasong-12 missile in January. At the time, it said the launch was meant to verify the overall accuracy of the weapon.
Last month, North Korea adopted a new law authorizing the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in some cases, a move that showed its increasingly aggressive nuclear doctrine. Last Saturday, Yoon warned of a “resolute, overwhelming response” from South Korean and U.S. militaries if North Korea uses nuclear weapons.