South Korean and US fighter jets conducted joint bombing drills in response to the missile launch. [Photo Credit: BBC News]
North Korea has fired a ballistic missile over Japan, in what appears to be a deliberate escalation to get the attention of Tokyo and Washington.
The missile travelled 4,500km (2,800 miles) before falling into the Pacific Ocean – far enough to hit the US island of Guam if it took another trajectory.
It is the North’s first missile launch over Japan since 2017. Japan issued an alert to some citizens to take cover.
The US, Japan and South Korea conducted their own military drills in response.
South Korean and US aircraft fired at a mock target on an uninhabited island in the Yellow Sea, while the US and Japan also jointly carried out drills over the Sea of Japan.
The UN prohibits North Korea from testing ballistic and nuclear weapons. Flying missiles towards or over other countries without any warning or consultation also contravenes international norms.
Most countries avoid doing it completely as it can easily be mistaken for an attack. While it is not as big as a nuclear test – which could be next – it can be considered hugely provocative.
People in the north of Japan, including Hokkaido island and Aomori city, reportedly woke up to the noise of sirens and text alerts which read: “North Korea appears to have launched a missile. Please evacuate into buildings or underground.”
As the missile flew overhead, they were warned to look out for falling debris. Many remained calm, though, with one video showing Tokyo commuters walking normally as loudspeakers blared out warnings.
But others were more shaken. “If a missile hit, I was worried it would be a big problem not only here but also nationwide,” Aomori resident Kazuko Ebina told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
Officials later said the intermediate-range ballistic missile fell into the Pacific Ocean far from Japan, and there were no reported injuries.
It had covered the longest distance ever travelled by a North Korean missile, and reached a height of around 1,000km – higher than the International Space Station.
Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida described the launch as “violent behaviour”, while defence minister Yasukazu Hamada said Japan would not rule out any options to strengthen its defences including “counterattack capabilities”.
US President Joe Biden reinforced Washington’s “ironclad commitment” to Japan’s defence during a phone call with Mr Kishida, while the two leaders jointly condemned the missile test, a White House statement said.
They confirmed they would work closely with South Korea and the international community to coordinate an immediate and longer-term response to the threat posed by the North, it added.
Last week, the three countries conducted naval exercises together for the first time since 2017. Such drills have long antagonised Pyongyang leader Kim Jong-un, who views them as proof that his enemies are preparing for war.
Following the combined exercises in 2017, North Korea fired two missiles over Japan in response. A week later, it conducted a nuclear test.
Recent intelligence has suggested that North Korea is getting ready to test another nuclear weapon.
It is expected that North Korea would wait until after China – its main ally – holds its Communist party congress later this month.
But some experts are now asking if it could come sooner than expected – they believe Tuesday’s launch shows that North Korea is preparing the ground for a nuclear test.