PYONGYANG—North Korea fired a ballistic missile early Sunday in what would be its first such test of the year and a challenge to US President Donald Trump, who vowed “100-percent” support for key ally Japan at a press conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
While there was no immediate confirmation from North Korea, which had recently warned it was ready to test its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the US Strategic Command said it detected and tracked what it assessed to be only a medium- or intermediate-range ballistic missile.
North Korean media are often slow to announce such launches, if they announce them at all. As of Sunday afternoon, there had been no official announcement and most North Koreans went about their day with no inkling that the launch was major international news.
The reports came as Trump was hosting Abe and just days before North Korea is to mark the birthday of leader Kim Jong-un’s late father, Kim Jong-il.
Appearing with Trump at a news conference at the president’s south Florida estate, Abe condemned the missile launch as “absolutely intolerable.”
Trump followed Abe with even fewer words, saying in part: “I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.”
Abe read a brief statement in which he called on North Korea to comply fully with relevant UN Security Council resolutions. He said Trump had assured him of US support and that Trump’s presence showed the president’s determination and commitment.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that the missile was fired from around Banghyon, North Pyongan province, which was where South Korean officials had said the North’s test launched its powerful midrange Musudan missile on Oct. 15 and 20 last year.
The military in Seoul said that the missile flew about 500 kilometers (310 miles). But Yonhap reported that while determinations were still being made, it was not believed to be an ICBM.
The missile splashed down into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, according to the US Strategic Command. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters the missile did not hit Japanese territorial seas.
North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and a slew of rocket launches last year in continued efforts to expand its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Kim Jong-un said in his New Year’s address that the country had reached the final stages of readiness to test an ICBM, which would be a major step forward in its efforts to build a credible nuclear threat to the United States.
Though Pyongyang has been relatively quiet about the transfer of power to the Trump administration, its state media has repeatedly called for Washington to abandon its “hostile policy” and vowed to continue its nuclear and missile development programs until the US changes its diplomatic approach.
Just days ago, Pyongyang also reaffirmed its plan to conduct more space launches, which it staunchly defends but which have been criticized because they involve dual use technology that can be transferred to improve missiles.
Kim Dong-yeop, an analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, speculated the missile could be a Musudan or a similar rocket designed to test engines for an ICBM that could hit the US mainland.