SEOUL: North Korea fired another missile over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido Friday morning, just a day after Pyongyang threatened that the four main Japanese islands “should be sunken into the sea” by its nuclear bomb.
This was the second time in less than three weeks that North Korea had sent a missile over Japan, and immediately sparked angry reactions in Tokyo and Seoul.
The missile was launched from the Sunan airfield just north of Pyongyang at about 6:30 a.m. local time, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said. It flew for 17 minutes, passing over Hokkaido and landing some 1,200 miles to the east, crashing into the Pacific Ocean.
The launch immediately triggered emergency alerts in Japan, with text messages and loud speakers telling residents on the missile’s potential flight path to seek shelter.
The Japanese government warned people not to approach any debris or other suspicious-looking material, a reflection of the fact that North Korean missiles sometimes break up in flight.
The Japanese chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, condemned the latest launch and reiterated that Japan would “not tolerate” North Korea’s actions. The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, had asked his government to “prepare for any contingency” but Japan did not try to shoot down the missile.
In Washington, the White House said President Donald Trump was briefed on the laltest North Korean missile launch by his chief of staff, John Kelly.
Details are still emerging, but Friday’s launch appeared very similar to the last launch, on Aug. 29.
On that day, North Korea fired an Hwasong-12 – an intermediate-range ballistic missile technically capable of flying 3,000 miles, enough to reach the U.S. territory of Guam – from the Sunan airfield. It flew to the east, over Hokkaido and into the Pacific Ocean, rather than on a southward path toward Guam.
But analysts said that, after testing its missiles by firing them straight up and having them crash into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, North Korea was apparently testing its flight on a normal trajectory without crossing a “red line” of aiming at the United States.
On Thursday, a North Korean state agency had issued an alarming threat to Japan.
“The four islands of the [Japanese] archipelago should be sunken into the sea by [our] nuclear bomb,” the Korea Asia-Pacific peace committee said in a statement carried by the official news agency.
Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands.
“Japan is no longer needed to exist near us,” the committee said.
This is the first missile launch since North Korea conducted a huge nuclear test on Sept. 3, which analysts say appeared to live up to Pyongyang’s claim that it was a hydrogen bomb, exponentially more powerful than a normal atomic device.
The Aug. 29 missile launch, followed by the huge nuclear test, triggered tough new sanctions from the United Nations Security Council.
The Japanese government estimates that the force of that nuclear explosion was 160 kilotons – more than 10 times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – but some analysts have said it could have been as big as 250 kilotons.
Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the chief of U.S. Strategic Command, agreed with the assessment that North Korea had probably tested a hydrogen bomb.
Speaking just before the missile was launched, Hyten, who oversees U.S. nuclear forces and monitors North Korea, told reporters that the size, yield and other indications seen in North Korea’s most recent nuclear test “equates to a hydrogen bomb” and that he must now assume Pyongyang can build one.
He said he could not confirm a hydrogen bomb was tested but the test was significant “because of the sheer destruction and damage you can use and create with a weapon of that size.”
“The change from the original atomic bomb to the hydrogen [bomb] changed our entire deterrent relationship with the Soviet Union,” Hyten said. “It is significantly of concern not just to Strategic Command, but to everybody in the free world. It should be of concern to people in the neighborhood, which is Japan and Korea, as well as China and Russia.”
Hyten said that if North Korea can mount a bomb of that size on a missile, it could potentially destroy a city. The United States has the ability to deter a nuclear attack on itself or its allies because of the nuclear weapons it maintains, but it’s a “different question” whether America can stop North Korea from building them.