North Korea Launches Another Missile, Escalating Crisis

The New Tork Times The New Tork Times

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea fired another ballistic missile over Japan on Friday, a direct challenge to the United States and China just days after a new sanctions resolution adopted by the United Nations Security Council that was intended to force the country to halt its accelerating nuclear and missile tests.

The missile was not aimed at the Pacific island of Guam, which President Trump had warned could prompt a military response after North Korea threatened to fire missiles into the sea near the island last month.

Instead, it blasted off from near the Sunan International Airport north of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and flew about 2,300 miles directly east, flying over northern Japan and falling into the Pacific Ocean, according to the South Korean military. That is a slightly greater distance than between the North Korean capital and the American air base in Guam, and American officials, scrambling to assess both the symbolism and importance of the test, said it was clearly intended to make the point that the North could reach the base with ease.

One senior American military official called it a test shot that was also meant as a warning that the primary American bomber base in the Pacific, which would be central to any military action on the Korean Peninsula, was within easy reach of the North’s intermediate-range missiles.

At the White House, the launching came at the end of the working day, and senior officials gathered in the Situation Room to weigh a response. But the Trump administration chose not to take out the missile on the launching pad, even though they saw it being fueled up a day ago. Vice President Mike Pence, officials said, was even shown images of the missile during a visit to one of the nation’s intelligence agencies.

Neither the United States nor Japan tried to shoot down the missile, perhaps because it was clear moments after the launching that it was not aimed at land. “The North American Aerospace Defense Command determined this ballistic missile did not pose a threat to North America,” Cmdr. Dave Benham, a spokesman for United States Pacific Command, said in a statement. It also concluded that the missile “did not pose a threat to Guam.”

Nonetheless, in Japan, an alert was issued on television and via cellphones, warning people to take shelter inside a building or underground. Japan said the missile landed in waters about 1,370 miles east of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

The launching appeared to answer a lingering question: whether Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, would view the latest round of sanctions, passed unanimously by the Security Council, as a threat to his government or a reason to speed forward with his program. The test also appeared to move the North one step closer to showing that it could place a nuclear warhead atop a missile that could travel thousands of miles, a prospect that has rattled the region and posed a daunting foreign policy challenge to the Trump administration.

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Intelligence officials have said in recent days that they believe that if Mr. Kim is willing to enter talks over a freeze of his nuclear and missile testing — and they are uncertain that he is — he will only do so after he has established that he can launch a nuclear weapon capable of hitting American territory. The Friday flight, with a long arc that peaked at an altitude a little less than 500 miles, took him close to demonstrating that he can accomplish just that.

For the White House, the launching prompts a series of diplomatic and military challenges.

Mr. Trump is scheduled to meet with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, and Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in New York next week. But Mr. Trump was clearly frustrated by the failure of the Security Council to enact tougher sanctions, including a complete cutoff of oil and other fuels imported into the North, mostly from China. It also did not win authorization to use military force, if needed, to inspect North Korean ships in international waters for arms and other items prohibited by the United Nations.

Mr. Trump’s aides say that they have not ruled out using pre-emptive strikes to stop North Korea’s tests. But they also acknowledge that such strikes could result in retaliation and escalation, putting tens of millions of South Koreans, Americans and Japanese at risk.

Mr. Abe, after returning to Tokyo from a visit to India, said, “We need to let North Korea realize that if they keep taking this path, they will have no bright future.”

Earlier, Yoshihide Suga, chief cabinet secretary to Mr. Abe, said that Japan “absolutely cannot accept the repeated outrageous provocative actions by North Korea” and lodged an official protest with the North, “conveying the strong fury of the Japanese people as well as condemning the action with the strongest words.” Those were, of course, exactly the words Mr. Kim has made clear he wants to hear from Japan.

In a statement, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson used a line that many of his predecessors have used, to no effect, in the past: “These continued provocations only deepen North Korea’s diplomatic and economic isolation.”

But Mr. Tillerson turned the issue back to China and Russia. “China supplies North Korea with most of its oil. Russia is the largest employer of North Korean forced labor,” he said. “China and Russia must indicate their intolerance for these reckless missile launches by taking direct actions of their own.”

The Security Council will hold “urgent consultations” on Friday at the request of the United States and Japan, the office of Ethiopia’s ambassador said Thursday. Ethiopia holds the Council’s rotating presidency for September.

South Korean officials said they were still analyzing the flight data to determine what type of missile was launched. In any event, it flew farther than any other missile North Korea has fired.

As the missile blasted off at 6:57 a.m. on Friday, South Korea almost simultaneously launched its Hyunmoo-2 ballistic missile off its east coast in a simulated pre-emptive strike, South Korean defense officials said.

Mr. Moon approved the South Korean launching and ordered his national security council to meet to discuss the North’s missile test. A proponent of dialogue with North Korea, he has joined Washington in campaigning for tougher sanctions and pressure against the North after its nuclear test.

It was the 15th missile test by North Korea this year and the first since North Korea detonated its most powerful nuclear bomb to date on Sept. 3.

In retaliation against the nuclear test, the United Nations Security Council adopted the new sanctions resolution against North Korea on Tuesday, its ninth since the country’s first nuclear test in 2006. If enforced, it would deprive North Korea of 30 percent of its annual fuel imports. It also bans textile imports from North Korea, stripping the country of another key source of hard currency.

But North Korea, already heavily sanctioned, has remained defiant, vowing to “redouble the efforts to increase its strength to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and right to existence” and to establish “the practical equilibrium with the U.S.”

On the eve of the latest missile test, a North Korean government organization said that the United States should be “beaten to death” like a “rabid dog” for spearheading new United Nations sanctions and that its ally Japan should be “sunken into the sea.”

“Now is the time to annihilate the U.S. imperialist aggressors,” a spokesman for the North’s Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee said Thursday, according to the Korean Central News Agency. “Let’s reduce the U.S. mainland into ashes and darkness.”

The spokesman accused Japan of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” and warned of a “telling blow” against Japan. “The four islands of the archipelago should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb of juche,” he said, referring to the North’s ruling philosophy of juche, or self-reliance.