South Korean defense officials and the U.S. Strategic Command say North Korea test-fired a "medium- or intermediate-range" ballistic missile early Sunday morning local time, which flew eastward for about 300 miles from the west coast of North Korea, over the peninsula and landed in the Sea of Japan. This marks the first missile test by the Kim Jong Un regime since October, and the first during the new Donald Trump presidency.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, appearing in a hastily arranged press conference with Trump following the test, said the move was "absolutely intolerable" and called on North Korea to fully comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions, which forbid Pyongyang from these types of tests.
"The United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent," Trump said, and took no questions.
The U.N. resolution — and repeated sanctions — have failed to curb the Kim regime, which test-fired missiles more than 20 times last year, and more than 50 since Kim Jong Un became leader five years ago.
South Korea convened an emergency national security meeting Sunday morning in response to the launch. South Korea's Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn said Seoul will work with the international community "to punish [the North] accordingly."
"North Korea's repeated provocations show the Kim Jong Un regime's nature of irrationality, maniacally obsessed in its nuclear and missile development," the South's foreign ministry said in a statement.
While the missile tested Sunday did not have the range to reach farther than Guam, North Korea has been racing ahead in developing its nuclear program. North Korea watchers have been on alert for a possible intercontinental ballistic missile test. An ICBM, as it's known, could be loaded with a nuclear warhead and, if successful, could reach the continental United States. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel noted last month:
"Independent arms control experts agree that North Korea is moving rapidly to develop an ICBM. And many suspect it will test a missile capable of reaching the continental U.S. later this year.
"They are very far along in their ICBM testing project," says Melissa Hanham, an East Asia researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. "Probably we will see that they will do a flight test in 2017."
The test comes as the nascent Trump administration's policy on North Korea remains unclear. Trump's team is said to be undergoing a top-to-bottom review of existing U.S. policy on Pyongyang, which President Barack Obama reportedly told Trump during the transition should be the top foreign policy priority on the table for the U.S.
Haeryun Kang contributed to this post.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
North Korea may be testing the new U.S. administration. It fired its first ballistic missile of the year, its first under the Trump administration. To talk more about this, we've called NPR's Elise Hu in Seoul, and she joins us on the line.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Elise, what do we know about this test missile?
HU: It was fired just before 8 o'clock in the morning local time Sunday, from North Korea into the Sea of Japan. That's the body of water between Korea and Japan. It flew about 300 miles before crash-landing into the ocean, and it didn't create any damage. And I should note this happened during dinnertime on the American east coast. That's important because President Trump was with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at that moment. And the two of them had a hastily arranged press conference where Abe condemned the attack and Trump backed him up with one brief comment.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Trump speaking there with the Japanese prime minister.
What can you tell us about the timing? It seems rather interesting that this took place right when the Japanese prime minister is in the United States.
HU: Exactly. That's a good point. And North Korea hasn't stated its motives explicitly. But observers are pointing to a couple of things - one, that the Kim Jong-un regime has committed itself to perfecting missile technology, so you have to test in order to do that; the other possibility is that North Korea wanted to remind everyone that it's still there. You know, we've seen a lot of diplomacy in this region lately with the defense secretary, James Mattis, coming out here last week. We've seen President Trump affirm the One-China policy just over this last week. The other possibility is that this has little to do with global affairs and more to do with just shoring up domestic allegiance to the regime within North Korea.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. So it's always very difficult to know what is going on in North Korea. But how will the Trump administration respond to North Korea, do you think, longer term?
HU: That's a huge question mark, Lulu. The Trump White House is believed to be doing a top-to-bottom review of North Korea policy. But even after they do that, the options here are limited. So this is a vexing question. President Barack Obama actually is said to have told Trump during the transition that North Korea should be the biggest foreign policy priority for the new administration.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Elise Hu is our Seoul correspondent.
Elise, thanks so much.
HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.