North Korea conducted its longest-ever test flight of a ballistic missile Friday, sending an intermediate-range weapon hurtling over U.S. ally Japan into the northern Pacific Ocean in a launch that signals both defiance to its rivals and a big technological advance.
Since President Donald Trump threatened the North with "fire and fury" in August, Pyongyang has conducted its most powerful nuclear test, threatened to send missiles into the waters around the U.S. Pacific island territory of Guam and launched two missiles of increasing range over Japan. July saw its first tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could strike deep into the U.S. mainland when perfected.
President Donald Trump has been briefed on the latest launch, and the White House is referring to the Department of Defense for further comments.
"North Korea's provocative missile launch represents the second time the people of Japan, a treaty ally of the United States, have been directly threatened in recent weeks," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.
"China and Russia must indicate their intolerance for these reckless missile launches by taking direct actions of their own," he continued.
The growing frequency, power and confidence displayed by these tests seem to confirm what governments and outside experts have long feared: North Korea is closer than ever to its goal of building a military arsenal that can viably target both U.S. troops in Asia and the U.S. homeland. This, in turn, is meant to allow North Korea greater military freedom in the region by raising doubts in Seoul and Tokyo that Washington would risk the annihilation of a U.S. city to protect its Asian allies.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said the latest missile traveled about 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles) and reached a maximum height of 770 kilometers (478 miles). Guam, which is the home of important U.S. military assets, is 3,400 kilometers (2,112 miles) away from North Korea.
North Korea has repeatedly vowed to continue these tests amid what it calls U.S. hostility — by which it means the presence of nearly 80,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan and South Korea. Robust international diplomacy on the issue has been stalled for years, and there's little sign that senior officials from Pyongyang and Washington might sit down to discuss ways to slow the North's determined march toward inclusion among the world's nuclear weapons powers.
Friday's test, which Seoul said was the 19th launch of a ballistic missile by North Korea this year, triggered sirens and warning messages in northern Japan but caused no apparent damage to aircraft or ships. It was the second missile fired over Japan in less than a month. North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 3.
The missile was launched from Sunan, the location of Pyongyang's international airport and the origin of the earlier missile that flew over Japan. Analysts have speculated the new test was of the same intermediate-range missile launched in that earlier flight, the Hwasong-12, and was meant to show Washington that the North can hit Guam if it chose to do so.
It was met with the usual outrage. South Korean President Moon Jae-in ordered his military to conduct a live-fire ballistic missile drill in response and instructed government officials to pursue "stern" measures to discourage further provocations. South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said one of the two missiles fired in the drill hit a sea target about 250 kilometers (155 miles) away, which was approximately the distance to Pyongyang's Sunan, but the other failed in flight shortly after launch.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis both called the North Korean launch a reckless act. The U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency closed-door meeting to be held Friday afternoon in New York.
South Korean experts have said North Korea wants to make missiles flying over Japan an accepted norm as it seeks to win more military space in a region dominated by its enemies.
North Korea initially flight-tested the Hwasong-12 and the ICBM model Hwasong-14 at highly lofted angles to reduce their range and avoid neighboring countries.
The two launches over Japan indicate North Korea is moving toward using angles close to operational to determine whether its warheads can survive the harsh conditions of atmospheric re-entry and detonate properly.
North Korea's August launch over Japan came weeks after it threatened to fire a salvo of Hwasong-12s toward Guam and bracket the island with "enveloping" missile fire.
North Korea has been accelerating its nuclear weapons development under leader Kim Jong Un, a third-generation dictator who has conducted four of North Korea's six nuclear tests since taking power in 2011. The weapons being tested include hard-to-detect solid-fuel missiles designed to be launched from road mobile launchers or submarines.
North Korea claimed its latest nuclear test was a detonation of a thermonuclear weapon built for its ICBMs.
The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved new sanctions earlier this week over the nuclear test. They ban all textile exports and prohibit any country from authorizing new work permits for North Korean workers — two key sources of hard currency. They also prohibit North Korea from importing all natural gas liquids and condensates, and cap Pyongyang's imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products.
North Korea's Foreign Ministry denounced the U.N. sanctions and said the North will "redouble its efforts to increase its strength to safeguard the country's sovereignty and right to existence."