SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Tuesday fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan for the first time in five years, forcing Japan to issue evacuation notices and suspend trains during the flight of the weapon that is capable of reaching the U.S. territory of Guam.
The launch was the most provocative weapons demonstration by North Korea this year as it ramps up missile tests to a record pace. Two intercontinental ballistic missiles tested earlier this year were launched at high angles and short of their full range and so didn’t fly over other nations’ territories.
Tuesday’s test, the North’s fifth round of missile launches in 10 days, comes as North Korea uses a diplomatic standstill with the U.S. to build up a full-fledged nuclear weapons program that viably threatens regional U.S. allies and the American homeland.
The Japanese prime minister’s office said at least one missile fired from North Korea flew over Japan and was believed to have landed into the Pacific Ocean.
Japanese authorities alerted residents in northeastern regions to evacuate to shelters, in the first “J-alert” alert since 2017, when North Korea fired an intermediate-range Hwasong-12 missile twice over Japan in a span of weeks during its previous torrid run of weapons tests.
Trains were suspended in the Hokkaido and Aomori regions until the government issued a subsequent notice that the North Korean missile appeared to have landed into the Pacific.
The United States condemned the launch as “dangerous and reckless” and said national security adviser Jake Sullivan had consulted with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on their appropriate and robust responses.
“The United States will continue its efforts to limit the DPRK’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.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters that “the firing, which followed a recent series of launches by North Korea, is a reckless act and I strongly condemn it.” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said no damage was immediately reported from the missile that flew 22 minutes.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement it detected the missile being fired from the inland north in North Korea. It warned the North’s repeated missile launches would only deepen its international isolation and prompt Seoul and Washington to bolster their deterrence capacities.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol also said the North’s “reckless nuclear provocations” would meet the stern response of the South and the broader international community.
Both South Korea and Japan convened emergency national security council meeting to discuss the launch.
According to South Korean and Japanese estimates, the missile travelled about 4,500-4,600 kilometers (2,800-2,860 miles) at a maximum altitude of 970-1,000 kilometers (600-620 miles) before landing in the waters outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said the missile’s estimated flight distance is believed to be “the longest” among the past North Korea-launched missiles.
The flight distance shows the missile’s range is enough to hit Guam, home to U.S. military bases that sent advanced warplanes to the Korean Peninsula in shows of force in past tensions 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, the North’s state media said the launch was meant to verify the overall accuracy of the weapon that was being deployed in its military. But it said the missile was launched on a lofted angle to prevent it from flying over other countries.
Kim Dong-yub, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, said the North likely tested the Hwasong-12 again on Tuesday.
The recent spate of weapons tests are an apparent response to bilateral military drills between South Korea and the United States and other training among the allies including Japan last week.
The missiles fired during the past four rounds of launches were short-range and fell in the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Those missiles are capable of hitting targets in South Korea.
North Korea has test-fired about 40 missiles over about 20 different launch events this year as its leader Kim Jong Un vows to expand his nuclear arsenal and refuses to return to nuclear diplomacy with the United States.
Some experts say Kim eventually would try to use his enlarged arsenal to pressure Washington to accept his country as a nuclear state, a recognition that he thinks is necessary to win the lifting of international sanctions and other concessions.
Story: Hyung-jin Kim, Kim Tong-hyung, and Mari Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo.