North Korea’s calculated missile launch shakes Japan out of bed

Range of Friday’s missile shows Pyongyang’s capacity for destruction steadily improving

North Korea fired a missile that flew over Japan's northern Hokkaido far out into the Pacific Ocean on Friday (Septemeber 15.

 

Breakfast television in Tokyo is normally a frothy mélange of children’s cartoons, variety shows and soft news. Now for the second time in less than a month the nation has woken up instead to warnings of North Korean missiles flying overhead.

Public service broadcaster NHK said Friday morning’s intermediate-range missile, launched just before 7am, flew in space at an altitude of 770km before dropping into the sea about 2,200km off Hokkaido in Japan’s north.

Few were surprised: Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened to lob more missiles into the Pacific as it hones its capacity to send bombs, including nuclear bombs, across continents. Like all countries that have that capacity, it must test each stage of development.

The North fired two long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles in July. On August 29th, it sent another intermediate-range missile over Hokkaido. A few days later it tested its sixth nuclear device – what it claims to have been a hydrogen bomb – to global condemnation.

These tests show Pyongyang’s capacity for destruction steadily improving. The September 3rd bomb was its most powerful yet, say experts. Friday’s missile reportedly flew about 3,700km, much further than previous efforts and within reach of the US island of Guam.

Japan’s defence minister Itsunori Onodera recently called the North’s nuclear programme “perhaps the most serious threat” facing his nation since the second World War.

Prime minister Shinzo Abe, arriving back from a trip to India on Friday morning, urged the world to unite against what he called the North’s repeated provocations. “We need to let North Korea realise that if they keep taking this path, they will have no bright future,” he said.

Calculated

Yet, the North’s provocations are clearly calculated. Friday’s test was a calibrated response to fresh sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, following the last nuclear test. The sanctions banned all textile exports from the isolated country and cut shipments of petrol and other fuel on which it depends.

North Korea’s state media responded with typically furious rhetoric, blaming the “Yankees” and Japan for “cooking up” the sanctions resolution. Earlier this week, Pyongyang threatened to sink Japan into the sea and reduce America to “ashes and darkness” for blocking what it views as its legitimate right to defence.

The security council resisted pressure from America and its allies, however, to impose a total ban on shipments of oil into North Korea. Russia and China, which supplies most of the North’s crude oil, say that an embargo would corner the North and provoke its leadership to lash out.

Japan will be back, with the US, to demand still tougher sanctions when the UN Security Council meets on Friday in New York.

People walk past a public TV screen broadcasting news of North Korea’s launch of a missile, in Tokyo on Friday. The missile flew over Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP
People walk past a public TV screen broadcasting news of North Korea’s launch of a missile, in Tokyo on Friday. The missile flew over Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

Russian president Vladimir Putin has proposed defusing the crisis with a “freeze-for-freeze”, in which America and South Korea would agree to suspend “provocative” annual huge sea, land and air exercises around the Korean Peninsula in return for a North Korean moratorium on missile tests.

There seems little appetite for such a compromise. US secretary of state Rex Tillerson on Friday urged Beijing and Moscow to do more to rein in Pyongyang. “China and Russia must indicate their intolerance for these reckless missile launches by taking direct actions of their own,” he said.

Hawks in Japan and the US view talks with the North as reward for its threats. Even South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who came to office in May pledging to engage Pyongyang in dialogue, said following the latest launch that talk was “impossible in a situation like this”.

What that means is more sabre rattling and almost certainly more tests over Japan.

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