- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2017

TOKYO — North Korea test-launched what officials here called an extraordinarily high-flying and potentially “new type” of missile on Sunday, a provocative move just a day after Pyongyang said it might be willing to meet for a dialogue with the Trump administration if the right conditions are set.

On Monday, North Korea confirmed that it was a “medium long-range” missile that it boasted could also carry a nuclear warhead and could strike the U.S. homeland directly and America’s Pacific islands such as Guam.

The launch, which defense sources said was likely fired to record altitude, set nerves on edge in Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called it a “grave threat” to his nation and reaffirmed Tokyo’s commitment to working with the U.S. and South Korea in response.

The Trump administration echoed Mr. Abe’s comments, swiftly called for tougher international sanctions against North Korea and said Pyongyang “has been a flagrant menace for too long.”

“The United States maintains our ironclad commitment to stand with our allies in the face of [this] serious threat,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement. “Let this latest provocation serve as a call for all nations to implement far stronger sanctions against North Korea.”

In a Monday dispatch, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said the Hwasong-12 missile was a “new ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket” that is “capable of carrying a large, heavy nuclear warhead.”

KCNA said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un witnessed the test and “hugged officials in the field of rocket research, saying that they worked hard to achieve a great thing.”

“The U.S. should not … disregard or misjudge the reality that its mainland and Pacific operation region are in (North Korea‘s) sighting range for strike,” KCNA cited Mr. Kim as saying.

The missile was launched at a particularly sensitive moment for South Korea, just days after left-leaning President Moon Jae-in won a snap election to lead the nation on a promise of pushing a more conciliatory posture — as well as direct dialogue — with Pyongyang.

President Trump also has indicated that he is not totally closed to the idea of talks with Mr. Kim, but analysts say the posturing from Mr. Moon in Seoul is more likely to result in some sort of direct near-term dialogue with Pyongyang.

But the latest missile test could put any serious hope of such talks in jeopardy because Pyongyang appears to have carried out a direct challenge to the new South Korean president’s resolve.

A top spokesman for Mr. Moon said Sunday that the administration still hopes to hold talks with North Korea but that the president had “deep regret” over the missile launch, which he called a “reckless provocation.”

“We are leaving open the possibility of dialogue with North Korea, but we should sternly deal with a provocation to prevent North Korea from miscalculating,” said Mr. Moon’s senior presidential secretary, Yoon Young-chan, according to The Associated Press.

Leaders from North and South Korea haven’t held direct talks since 2007, roughly two years before the collapse of “six-party talks” involving China, the U.S., North and South Korea, Japan and Russia. The negotiations over a potential normalization of international relations with North Korea were derailed by Pyongyang’s missile tests and nuclear pursuits in defiance of U.N. resolutions.

The latest launch

The latest development comes amid increased international fears that Pyongyang is rushing toward developing an arsenal of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that could threaten allies such as South Korea and Japan, where some 80,000 U.S. military personal are stationed collectively, and potentially reach the American homeland.

In addition to five successful nuclear detonation tests since 2006, analysts say, the North Koreans have carried out more than 70 missile tests since 2009.

The provocations have helped justify a political push in Japan that resulted in the creation of a U.S.-modeled national security council in 2013. Mr. Abe is now engaged a controversial drive to revise the nation’s pacifist constitution for the first time since World War II to allow for an expansion of defensive Japanese military activities.

U.S. military officials said they were still assessing the type of projectile launched in the latest test, asserting that it did not appear to be an intercontinental missile. But Japanese officials said the projectile reached an altitude of more than 1,200 miles after it was launched from inside North Korea.

The Japanese Defense Ministry said the missile flew for about 30 minutes at a distance of roughly 500 miles before crashing into the sea bordering North Korea, Japan and Russia.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said the launch could be of a “new type of ballistic missile,” according to The Japan Times, which reported that projectile’s steep, “lofted” trajectory hit the highest altitude ever recorded by the Japanese Defense Ministry.

The newspaper also cited a defense ministry official on the condition of anonymity as saying that the “rather unusual” altitude meant Pyongyang may have intentionally fired it at the higher altitude to shorten its flying distance.

Such details are likely to trigger speculation in Washington, where a report last month by the Congressional Research Service maintained that North Korea has tailored a spate of ballistic missile tests to involve particularly high-flying projectiles with a flight pattern designed to avoid interception by U.S. anti-missile systems.

One way the U.S. military has countered the missile threat from North Korea has been to station Patriot anti-missile batteries in the region, as well as more recently deploying the wider-range, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea.

Russia’s relevance

Mr. Trump was briefed late Saturday about the launch, which occurred Sunday morning local time. A White House statement said South Korea and Japan “have been watching this situation closely with us.”

With the missile landing closer to Russia than Japan, the White House said, “the president cannot imagine that Russia is pleased.”

Mr. Trump has been urging China — North Korea’s main economic ally — to exert more pressure Pyongyang to scale back its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.

But some regional observers have been stressing the importance of Moscow’s role in any serious effort to contain or influence North Korea’s behavior.

“Russia is at the very top of North Korea’s list of friendly nations,” Yoichi Funabashi, a former editor-in-chief of Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper, recently wrote in an analysis published by the Bengei Shunju magazine and The Japan Times.

“This year, Kim Jong-un sent his first New Year’s greeting to Russia [China was next on the list],” Mr. Funabashi wrote. “This makes it all the more important for Russia to join other concerned nations in beefing up sanctions and stepping up pressure on North Korea.”

Dave Boyer and Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report.

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