North Korea has launched a intermediate-range ballistic missile over northern Japan for the first time in five years, prompting the government to urge people to shelter from falling debris, in an apparent escalation of recent weapons tests by Kim Jong-un’s regime.
Japan’s government had activated its J-Alert system on Tuesday morning for residents in the northernmost main island of Hokkaido and the country’s north-eastern Aomori prefecture. Train services were temporarily halted in the region.
“North Korea appears to have launched a missile. Please evacuate into buildings or underground,” the alert read.
The prime minister, Fumio Kishida, called North Korea’s actions “outrageous”, and said the government would continue to gather and analyse information. The defence minister, Yasukazu Hamada, said Japan would examine all options, including counterattack capabilities, as it looks to strengthen its defences in the face of repeated missile launches from North Korea.
South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk-yeol, warned of a “resolute” response after the launch, the Yonhap news agency reported. Yoon said the missile had flown about 4,000km, Yonhap added. That range puts the US Pacific territory of Guam within striking distance.
South Korea’s unification ministry, which oversees cross-border issues, said North Korea was “unresponsive” on the inter-Korean hotline. Yoon promised a stern response from South Korea and the international community to the North’s “reckless nuclear provocations”, while the South’s national security council said Pyongyang’s provocations would “only strengthen security cooperation with the US”, South Korea’s main ally.
South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff (JCS) said the projectile appeared have been an intermediate-range ballistic missile launched from North Korea’s Jagang province.
It was the first time North Korea has sent a missile over Japanese territory since 2017. TV Asahi, citing an unnamed government source, said the missile had fallen in the sea 3,000km (1,860 miles) east of Japan at 7.44am local time after a 22-minute flight.
“North Korea’s series of actions, including its repeated ballistic missile launches, threatens the peace and security of Japan, the region and the international community, and poses a serious challenge to the entire international community, including Japan,” Japan’s top government spokesperson, Hirokazu Matsuno, said in a brief news conference.
The US state department said the “reckless and dangerous launch” posed “an unacceptable threat to the Japanese public”.
Kyodo reported Japanese defence ministry sources as saying the missile had flown eastward over the Japan Sea – known in Korea as the East Sea – before flying over Japanese territory. There were no reports of injuries or of damage to ships or aircraft. It was the seventh time North Korea had launched a missile over Japan, it added.
Japan’s government issued a swift rebuke, describing the launch as a “threat to regional security”.
The latest launch is the fifth in 10 days, as the North ramps up its response to the recent resumption of large-scale military exercises by US and South Korean forces. The allies insist the drills are purely defensive, but Pyongyang condemns them as a rehearsal for an invasion.
Tuesday’s test also comes a few days after the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, made a high-profile visit to the heavily armed border separating the two Koreas.
Later in the day South Korean and US fighter jets carried out a “precision bombing drill” in response, Seoul’s military said, with South Korean F-15Ks dropping joint direct attack munitions at a target in the Yellow Sea.
In September 2017, millions of residents in a dozen Japanese prefectures were warned to take cover inside buildings or underground in chilling reminders that the country is within easy striking distance of North Korean missiles.
A second alert confirmed that the missile, thought to be an intermediate-range Hwasong-12, had passed over without incident and landed in the Pacific 2,000km to the east.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the North’s flurry of tests in recent days could be a precursor to a launch involving larger missiles.
“By now, North Korea’s short-range missile tests suffer diminishing returns in terms of technical advancement, domestic political value, and international signalling. Diplomacy isn’t dead, but talks aren’t about to resume either,” Easley said.
“Pyongyang is still in the middle of a provocation and testing cycle and is likely waiting until after China’s mid-October Communist party congress to conduct a more militarily significant test.”
He added that Kim’s regime was “developing weapons such as tactical nuclear warheads and submarine-launched ballistic missiles as part of a long-term strategy to outrun South Korea in an arms race and drive wedges among US allies”.
Firing over or past Japan allows North Korea’s scientists to test missiles under more realistic conditions, said Ankit Panda of the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Compared with the usual highly lofted trajectory, this allows them to expose a long-range reentry vehicle to thermal loads and atmospheric reentry stresses that are more representative of the conditions they’d endure in real-world use,” he said.
“Politically, it’s complicated: the missile largely flies outside of the atmosphere when it’s over Japan, but it’s obviously distressing to the Japanese public to receive warnings of a possible incoming North Korean missile.”