SEOUL: In a first, North Korea on Tuesday fired a ballistic missile designed to carry a nuclear payload that flew over Japan and splashed into the northern Pacific Ocean, officials said.

The aggressive missile launch likely the longest ever from North Korea over the territory of a close US ally sends a clear message of defiance as Washington and Seoul conduct war games nearby.

In a statement, 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.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile travelled around 2,700 kilometres and reached a maximum height of 550 kilometres as it flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The distance and type of missile tested seemed designed to show that North Korea can back up a threat to target the US territory of Guam, if it chooses to do so, while also establishing a potentially dangerous precedent that could see future missiles flying over Japan.

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. North Korea also chose not to fire its most recent missile at a lofted angle, as it did in previous launches to avoid other countries, and Seoul’s spy service said the North launched from an unusual spot: the international airport in its capital, Pyongyang.

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.

The South Korean military was analysing whether North Korea had launched a Hwasong-12, a new intermediate-range missile that it recently threatened to fire into waters near Guam, which hosts a major US military base that the North considers a threat.

The launch is also another rebuke to Trump, who suggested last week that his tough approach to North Korea, which included threats to unleash “fire and fury,” meant leader Kim Jong Un “is starting to respect us.” Tuesday’s missile landed nowhere near Guam, but firing a Hwasong-12 so soon after the Guam 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 away from North Korea, but South Korea’s military said the North may have fired the most recent missile at a shorter range.

North Korea will no doubt be watching the world’s reaction to see if it can use Tuesday’s flight over Japan as a precedent for future launches.

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,” and that “All options are on the table.” Japanese officials made their usual strongly worded condemnations of the launch.

“We will do our utmost to protect people’s lives,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said. “This reckless act of launching a missile that flies over our country is an unprecedented, serious and important threat.”

Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2017