An emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council will be held Monday after North Korea fired a ballistic missile it claims is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. While Japan and South Korea were quick to condemn the test and call for an urgent response, Donald Trump has so far shown surprising restraint in his criticism of the hermit kingdom.
At 7.55 a.m. local time Sunday morning, North Korea fired the Pukguksong-2 missile, a previously unknown part of their arsenal, from the northwestern town of Banghyon. The weapon, which has been described as either a medium or intermediate range missile, travelled for 310 miles off the north east coast before falling harmlessly into the Sea of Japan.
According to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) the test was personally overseen by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The agency also said the missile was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and "evading interception." Kim "expressed great satisfaction over the possession of another powerful nuclear attack means which adds to the tremendous might of the country."
Intermediate ballistic missiles can have a range of up to 3,500 miles, but according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the missile launched on Sunday would have a range of just 1,250 kilometres — though that is still enough to allow it reach most of Japan.
Last month, Pyongyang boasted that it was in the final stages of preparing a longer range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). What makes this weekend's launch more notable is the fact the missile uses solid fuel rather than liquid fuel, which makes it more mobile and easier to launch at short notice — as well as being tougher for others to track.
This was the first missile fired by North Korea since Trump became president, and was timed to coincide with a visit to the U.S. by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
What has the reaction been?
Abe and Trump heard of the missile test as they prepared for dinner at Trump's Florida club Mar-a-Lago. During dinner, the pair spoke on the phone to their respective officials and read documents detailing what had happened.
The pair then gave a hastily prepared press conference, with Abe strongly condemning the attack. "North Korea's most recent missile launch is absolutely intolerable. North Korea must fully comply with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions," Abe said.
Trump then took the podium and said just 23 words, which made no explicit mention of the missile test: "I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent."
Trump did have a set of prepared comments with him — which were captured by a photographer — but declined to use them. These did mention the test, and said the U.S. would work with its allies to "safeguard and protect" against North Korea's "provocative acts."
Such measured remarks will surprise many, given Trump's previous comments which have indicated a strong stance on North Korea:
China, seen as critical in holding Pyongyang to account, condemned the test Monday morning, with foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang blaming the U.S. and South Korea for the ongoing issues: "The root cause of the nuclear missile issue is its differences with the U.S. and South Korea," adding that "under current circumstances, relevant sides should not provoke each other or take actions that would escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula."
At the behest of the U.S., Japan and South Korea, the UN has confirmed that the Security Council will hold a behind-closed-doors consultation on North Korea Monday. It is unclear what this meeting can achieve given that North Korea regularly ignores Security Council resolutions banning it from test firing any missiles. In 2016 it ignored such edicts more than two dozen times.
Under Barack Obama, the U.S. tightened sanctions against the country – effectively cutting it off from the rest of the world. Trump's staid comments could simply reflect his administration's lack of any defined policy towards North Korea – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson still has no deputy and a wave of State Department officials resigned just as he took office.
"We will learn an enormous amount about his policy and his administration by how he deals with North Korea," Evan Medeiros, a managing director at the Eurasia Group and a former Obama adviser, told the New York Times. "It's the land of really bad options, and the threat is only becoming more serious and the window is closing. It will probably become the defining security challenge for the next president in Asia, if not globally."
CORRECTION (Feb 13, 10:30 a.m.): An earlier version of this story did not specify the range of the missile tested on Sunday. It had a range of 1,250 kilometres.
Topics: north korea