At a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday night, held shortly after North Korea’s surprise test launch of a missile, President Donald Trump declared: “I just want everybody to understand, and fully know, that the United States of America is behind Japan, our great ally, one hundred percent.”
“The missile – launched at around 7.55am local time from Banghyon airbase in the western province of North Pyongan Province – flew about 310 miles east towards the Sea of Japan before it dropped into water,” according to South Korean reports cited by Sky News.
“It is believed that today’s missile launch… is aimed at drawing global attention to the North by boasting its nuclear and missile capabilities,” said the South Korean defense ministry. “It is also believed that it was an armed provocation to test the response from the new US administration under President Trump.”
The platform tested in North Korea’s first missile launch since Trump took office was similar to Musudan intermediate-range missiles launched from the same site on previous occasions. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency believes the latest iteration of the weapon includes technology developed for submarine-launched ballistic missiles, giving it better accuracy than previous North Korean systems.
Of particular concern is the solid-fuel engine used in the new missile because solid-fuel rockets can be prepped and launched much more quickly than liquid-fuel systems, and they can attach to mobile launchers which are harder to detect with satellites. This is a significant step forward for North Korean military technology, although analysts say they are not yet capable of mounting nuclear warheads on their missiles or seriously threatening the continental United States.
“South Korea’s military said on Monday the missile had been launched using a ‘cold-eject’ system, whereby it is initially lifted by compressed gas before flying under the power of its rocket, a system used for submarine-launched missiles,” Reuters reports.
During their joint press conference, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced the North Korean launch as “absolutely intolerable,” while Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called it “a clear provocation to Japan and the region.”
CNN’s analysts believe the missile test was a message “clearly directed at Japan,” as Professor Carl Schuster of Hawaii Pacific University said.
Naturally, South Korea is watching these developments with apprehension, although CNN suggests Pyongyang is less interested in provoking Seoul because the South Korean presidency is currently mired in a corruption scandal, and Reuters notes the South Korean stock market did not react strongly to North Korea’s missile launch.
A spokesman for South Korea’s defense ministry did reaffirm his country’s determination to “secure the lives of citizens and the national security from North Korea’s threat based on a strong joint defense system between the South Korea and the U.S.” This was taken as a reference to the THAAD anti-missile system the United States plans to deploy in South Korea.
North Korean media pronounced the missile test successful, although the distance it traveled was not impressive for a missile of its class, and claimed dictator Kim Jong-un personally supervised the operation. There has been speculation that Japan may also express interest in acquiring a THAAD system to defend against North Korean missiles.