TOKYO/SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea fired a missile that flew over Japan and landed in waters off the northern region of Hokkaido early on Tuesday, South Korean and Japanese officials said, marking a sharp escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula.
The test, which experts said appeared to have been an intermediate-range Hwasong 12 missile, came as U.S. and South Korean forces conduct annual military drills on the peninsula, against which North Korea strenuously objects.
Earlier this month, North Korea threatened to fire missiles into the sea near the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam after U.S. President Donald Trump warned Pyongyang would face “fire and fury” if it threatened the United States.
North Korea has conducted dozens of ballistic missile tests under young leader Kim Jong-Un, the most recent on Saturday, but firing projectiles over mainland Japan is rare.
“North Korea’s reckless action is an unprecedented, serious and grave threat to our nation,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters.
Abe said Japan was seeking an urgent meeting at the United Nations to strengthen measures against Pyongyang. The test was a clear violation of UN resolutions and the government had protested against the move in the strongest terms, he said.
North Korea fired what it said was a rocket carrying a communications satellite into orbit over Japan in 2009. The United States, Japan and South Korea considered that launch to have been a ballistic missile test.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the latest North Korean missile fell into the sea 1,180 km (735 miles) east of the Cape of Erimo on Hokkaido.
LOUDSPEAKER WARNINGSThe Japanese government’s J-Alert system broke into radio and TV programming, warning citizens of the possible missile. Bullet train services were temporarily halted and warnings went out over loudspeakers in towns in Hokkaido.
Global markets reacted to the escalation in tensions, buying safe-haven assets such as gold, the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen, and selling stocks.
South Korea’s military said the missile was launched from the Sunan region near the North Korean capital just before 6 a.m. (2100 GMT Monday) and flew 2,700 km (1,680 miles), reaching an altitude of about 550 km (340 miles).
Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported the missile broke into three pieces and fell into waters off Hokkaido.
The Japanese military did not attempt to shoot down the missile, which passed over Japanese territory around 6:07 a.m. local time (2107 GMT).
In Washington, the Pentagon confirmed the missile flew over Japan but did not pose a threat to North America and said it was gathering further information.
The United States and South Korea are technically still at war with the North because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North routinely says it will never give up its weapons programs, saying they are necessary to counter perceived U.S. hostility.
North Korea again asked the U.N. Security Council to meet to discuss the ongoing joint U.S.-South Korean military drills, according to a letter released on Monday by the North Korean mission to the United Nations.
The Aug. 25 letter to the Security Council and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres from North Korean U.N. Ambassador Ja Song Nam described the military exercises as a “grave threat” to the Korean peninsula and international peace and security.
“It is the fair and square self-defensive right of the DPRK to cope with reckless, aggressive war maneuvers and the U.S. would be wholly responsible for any catastrophic consequences to be entailed from the result,” Ja wrote, using the initials of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Similar previous requests have gone unanswered by the 15-member Security Council.
The 15-member U.N. Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea in response to the two July long-range missile launches.
(For an interactive package on North Korea's missile capabilities click tmsnrt.rs/2t6WEPL)
(For a graphic on North Korean missile trajectories, ranges click tmsnrt.rs/2vLMdVm)
Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim in SEOUL,; Malcolm Foster, Chang-ran Kim and Linda Sieg in TOKYO,; Idrees Ali, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON, and Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Paul Tait