SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea, defying calls to curb its weapons programme, fired a ballistic missile that landed in the sea near Russia on Sunday in a launch the United States called a message to South Korea days after its new president took office pledging to engage Pyongyang in dialogue.
Japanese Defence Minister Tomomi Inada said the missile could be a new type. It flew for 30 minutes before dropping into the sea between North Korea’s east coast and Japan. North Korea has consistently test-fired missiles in that direction.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said initial assessments showed the missile landed 97 km (60 miles) south of Russia’s Vladivostok region.
The missile flew 700 km (430 miles) and reached an altitude of more than 2,000 km (1,245 miles), according to officials in South Korea and Japan, further and higher than an intermediate-range missile North Korea successfully tested in February from the same region of Kusong, northwest of its capital Pyongyang.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called the launch a message by Pyongyang to South Korea after the election of President Moon Jae-in, who took office on Wednesday.
“You first have to get into Kim Jong Un’s head - which is, he’s in a state of paranoia, he’s incredibly concerned about anything and everything around him,” Haley told ABC’s “This Week” program, referring to North Korea’s leader.
Haley added that the United States will “continue to tighten the screws” on North Korea, mentioning sanctions and working with the international community to put pressure on Pyongyang.
Moon held his first National Security Council in response to the launch, which he called a “clear violation” of U.N. Security Council resolutions, his office said.
The United Nations Security Council is due to meet on Tuesday to discuss the launch, diplomats said on Sunday.
The U.S. military’s Pacific Command said it was assessing the type of missile that was fired but it was “not consistent with an intercontinental ballistic missile”. The U.S. threat assessment has not changed from a national security standpoint, a U.S. official said.
An intercontinental ballistic missile is considered to have a range of more than 6,000 km (3,700 miles).
The White House mentioned Russia in its earlier statement about the launch. “With the missile impacting so close to Russian soil – in fact, closer to Russia than to Japan – the President cannot imagine that Russia is pleased,” the White House said, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump.
The launch served as a call for all nations to implement stronger sanctions against North Korea, it added.
North Korea is widely believed to be developing an intercontinental missile tipped with a nuclear weapon that is capable of reaching the United States. Trump has vowed not to let that happen.
Experts said the altitude reached by the missile tested on Sunday meant it was launched at a high trajectory, which would limit the lateral distance it travelled. But if it was fired at a standard trajectory, it would have a range of at least 4,000 km (2,500 miles), experts said.
Kim Dong-yub of Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul said he estimated a standard trajectory would give it a range of 6,000 km (3,700 miles).
“The launch may indeed represent a new missile with a long range,” said Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, referring to the estimated altitude of more than 2,000 km (1,240 miles). “It is definitely concerning.”
Moon won Tuesday’s election on a platform of a moderate approach to North Korea and has said he would be willing to go to Pyongyang under the right circumstances, arguing dialogue must be used in parallel with sanctions.
“The president said while South Korea remains open to the possibility of dialogue with North Korea, it is only possible when the North shows a change in attitude,” Yoon Young-chan, Moon’s press secretary, told a briefing.
Ambassador Haley said the launch was not the way for North Korea to earn a meeting with Trump, who has said he would be “honoured” to meet Kim Jong Un under the right circumstances.
Trump said in an interview with Reuters in April that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible but he would prefer a diplomatic outcome. On Saturday, a top North Korean diplomat said Pyongyang was open to dialogue with the Trump administration under the right conditions.
Speaking in Beijing, Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told reporters Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping had discussed the situation on the Korean peninsula, including the latest missile launch, and expressed “mutual concerns” about growing tensions.
Putin is in Beijing for a conference on a plan for a new Silk Road. Delegations from the United States, South Korea and North Korea are also there.
The launch, at 5:27 a.m. Seoul time (2027 GMT Saturday), came two weeks after North Korea fired a missile that disintegrated minutes into flight, marking its fourth consecutive failure since March.
China, North Korea’s sole main ally which nevertheless objects to its weapons programmes, called for restraint and for no one to exacerbate tensions.
“China opposes relevant launch activities by North Korea that are contrary to Security Council resolutions,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said North Korea’s missile launches were a “grave threat to our country and a clear violation of U.N. resolutions”.
North Korean attempted but failed to test-launch ballistic missiles four times in the past two months. It has conducted various tests since the beginning of last year at an unprecedented pace. It also conducted its fourth and fifth nuclear tests last year.
Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said among the responses expected from the Trump administration would be further pressure on all countries to fully implement U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions against North Korea.
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in NEW YORK, Dustin Volz and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON, Linda Sieg and Nobuhiro Kubo in TOKYO, Christine Kim in SEOUL, and Ben Blanchard and Denis Dyomkin in BEIJING; Writing by Jack Kim and Soyoung Kim; Editing by Neil Fullick, Robert Birsel and Will Dunham