WASHINGTON/SEOUL – President Donald Trump warned on Tuesday that all options are on the table for the United States to respond to North Korea’s firing of a ballistic missile over northern Japan’s Hokkaido island into the sea in a new show of force.
The missile test further increased tension in east Asia as US and South Korean forces conducted annual military exercises on the Korean peninsula, angering Pyongyang which sees the war games as a preparation for invasion.
North Korea has conducted dozens of ballistic missile tests under its leader, Kim Jong Un, in defiance of UN sanctions, but firing projectiles over mainland Japan is rare.
Trump, who has vowed not to let North Korea develop nuclear missiles that can hit the mainland United States, said the world had received North Korea’s latest message “loud and clear”.
“Threatening and destabilising actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table,” Trump said in a statement.
Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke and agreed that North Korea “poses a grave and growing direct threat” to the United States, Japan and South Korea, the White House said.
Global equity prices slipped and investors flocked to safe-haven assets after the missile firing.
The dollar fell to its lowest level in more than 2-1/2 years against a basket of major currencies, benchmark 10-year Treasury yields fell and the price of gold hit more than a nine-month peak. US stocks pared losses after opening sharply lower.
The North Korean missile was likely an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) and further analysis was underway to determine whether it was a success or failure, two US officials said. It appeared to be a KN-17, or Hwasong-12, according to initial data, they said.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning said diplomacy was still Washington’s preferred option with Pyongyang.
North Korea was defiant.
“The US should know that it can neither browbeat the DPRK with any economic sanctions and military threats and blackmail nor make the DPRK flinch from the road chosen by itself,” North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun said, using the initials of the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The North vows to never give up its weapons programs, saying they are necessary to counter hostility from the United States and its allies.
The United States has said before that all options, including military, are on the table, although its preference is for a diplomatic solution.
The United States is technically still at war with the North because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. Relations worsened last year when North Korea staged two nuclear bomb tests. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the launch was “absolutely unacceptable and irresponsible” and that the Security Council now needed to take serious action.
Saying “enough is enough,” Haley said she hoped China and Russia would continue to work with the rest of the Security Council when it meets on Tuesday afternoon to discuss what more can be done about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
The Security Council earlier this month unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea after it staged two long-range missile launches in July.
In response to Trump’s statement that all options are on the table, Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters: “It’s troubling, because tensions are high and whose nerves are stronger, we don’t know.”
Diplomats say China and Russia typically only view a test of a long-range missile or a nuclear weapon as a trigger for further possible UN sanctions. Negotiations on the past three substantial UN sanctions resolutions have taken between one and three months.
In China, North Korea’s lone major ally, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the crisis was “approaching a critical juncture”, but it might also be a turning point to open the door to peace talks.
The launch was North Korea’s second since US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to make a peace overture last week, by welcoming what he called the restraint Pyongyang had shown by not conducting tests for several weeks. Trump also expressed optimism last week about a possible improvement in relations, saying of North Korea’s Kim: “I respect the fact that he is starting to respect us.”
Some experts in Asia said Kim was trying to pressure Washington to get to the negotiating table with the latest missile tests.
“(North Korea) thinks that by exhibiting their capability, the path to dialogue will open,” Masao Okonogi, professor emeritus at Japan’s Keio University, said.
South Korea’s military said the missile was launched from near the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, just before 6 a.m. (2100 GMT on Monday) and flew 2 700 km (1 680 miles), reaching an altitude of about 550 km (340 miles).
Four South Korean fighter jets bombed a military firing range on Tuesday after President Moon Jae-in asked the military to demonstrate capabilities to counter North Korea.
South Korea and the United States had discussed deploying additional “strategic assets” on the Korean peninsula, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said in a statement, without giving more details.
Earlier this month, North Korea threatened to fire four missiles into the sea near the US Pacific territory of Guam after Trump said it would face “fire and fury” if it threatened the United States.
North Korea fired what it said was a rocket carrying a communications satellite into orbit over Japan in 2009 after warning of its plan. The United States, Japan and South Korea considered it a ballistic missile test.
The latest missile fell into the sea 1 180 km (735 miles) east of Hokkaido, the Japanese government said.
In many northern Japanese towns, sirens wailed and loudspeakers urged residents to take precautions, sending some scrambling to leave their houses while others confessed they had no idea what they should do.
Japanese television and radio broadcasters broke into their regular programming with a “J-Alert” warning citizens of the missile launch and bullet train services were temporarily halted. (Reuters)