SEOUL // North Korea fired a ballistic missile on Sunday, drawing a strong response from US president Donald Trump who vowed “100 per cent” support for key ally Japan as he appeared with prime minister Shinzo Abe.
The missile, the first test since Trump became president, was launched about 7.55am (22.55 GMT Saturday) from Banghyon airbase in the western province of North Pyongan, and flew east towards the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea.
It flew about 500 kilometers before falling into the sea, a South Korean defense ministry spokesman said. The exact type of missile had yet to be identified, he said.
“Today’s missile launch is aimed at drawing global attention to the North by boasting its nuclear and missile capabilities,” the ministry said.
“It is also believed that it was an armed provocation to test the response from the new US administration under president Trump.”
Mr Trump responded with an assurance to the visiting Japanese prime minister that Washington was committed to the security of its key Asian ally.
“I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 per cent,” Mr Trump said, without elaborating.
Mr Abe denounced the launch as “absolutely intolerable”, while in Tokyo, top government spokesman Yoshihide Suge said it was “clearly a provocation to Japan and the region”.
North Korea is barred under UN resolutions from any use of ballistic missile technology but six sets of UN sanctions since Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006 have failed to halt its drive for what it insists are defensive weapons.
Last year the country conducted several tests and launches in its quest to develop a nuclear weapons system capable of hitting the US mainland.
A South Korean army official quoted by Yonhap news agency ruled out the possibility of a long-range missile test, describing the device as an upgraded version of the North’s short-range Rodong missile.
Seoul-based academic Yang Soo-jin said the latest test was “a celebratory launch” to mark the February 16 birthday of Kim Jong-il, late ruler and father of current leader Kim Jong-un.
Pyongyang often celebrates key anniversaries involving current and former leaders with missile launches, said Mr Yang, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
South Korea’s acting president Hwang Gyo-ahn promised there would be “a corresponding punishment” in response to the launch, which came soon after a visit to Seoul by new US defense secretary James Mattis this month.
Mr Mattis had warned Pyongyang that any nuclear attack would be met with an “effective and overwhelming” response.
Mr Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, called his South Korean counterpart Kim Kwan-jin and agreed to “seek all possible options” to curb future provocations by the North, Seoul’s presidential office said.
In January leader Kim Jong-un boasted that Pyongyang was in the “final stages” of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in an apparent attempt to put pressure on the incoming US president. Mr Trump shot back on Twitter, saying “It won’t happen”.
Washington has repeatedly vowed that it will never accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed nation and the latest launch poses a test for the new president, who will need the help of Beijing, Pyongyang’s closest ally, to deal with the reclusive state.
Relations between the two superpowers have thawed in recent days after Mr Trump reaffirmed Washington’s continuing adherence to the “One China” policy in what he described as a “very warm” conversation with president Xi Jinping.
Analysts are divided over how close Pyongyang is to realizing its full nuclear ambitions, especially as it has never successfully test-fired an ICBM.
But all agree it has made enormous strides in that direction since Mr Kim took over after the death of his father in December 2011.