SEOUL/TOKYO (Reuters) -North Korea fired a new model of long-range ballistic missile on Thursday, South Korea said, triggering a scare in northern Japan where residents were told to take cover, though there turned out to be no danger.
A South Korean military official said the missile appeared to have been a new weapon displayed at recent North Korean military parades, and possibly used solid fuel.
North Korea has criticised recent U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises as escalating tensions and has stepped weapons tests in recent months. It has been working to build more solid-fuel missiles which can be launched with almost no warning or preparation time.
The missile flew about 1,000 km (620 miles), South Korea’s military said, calling it a “grave provocation”. The official said the missile’s maximum altitude was lower than 6,000 km, the apogee of some of last year’s record-breaking tests.
“So far we assess that they fired a new type of ballistic missile with an intermediate or intercontinental range,” the official said. “We’re still analysing details like the trajectory, altitude and range, with the possibility that it carried a solid-fuel propellant.”
The South Korean military said it was on high alert and coordinating closely with its main ally, the United States, which “strongly condemned” what the White House said was a long-range ballistic missile test.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also strongly condemned the test and called on North Korea to return to denuclearisation talks, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
While condemning the latest in a string of North Korean missile tests, Washington renewed its offer to resume talks.
“The door has not closed on diplomacy, but Pyongyang must immediately cease its destabilising actions and instead choose diplomatic engagement,” U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said.
The launch came days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for strengthening war deterrence in a “more practical and offensive” manner to counter what North Korea called moves of aggression by the United States.
Following the launch, the Japanese and U.S. air forces conducted drills over the Sea of Japan “as the security environment surrounding Japan is becoming more and more severe,” Japan’s defence ministry said.
While North Korea has tested short-range solid-fuel missiles, it has not tested a long-range missile of that type, said Bruce Bennett, a senior defence analyst at the U.S.-based RAND Corporation.
Kim Dong-yup, a former South Korean navy officer now at Kyungnam University, said the new system might have been an intercontinental ballistic missile that was unveiled at a February military parade, and powered by a solid-fuel engine tested in December.
James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he believed the United States would be able to determine between a solid- or liquid-fueled launch via early warning satellites capable of detecting differences in the infrared spectrums produced by different missile types.
“North Korea’s ongoing development of long-range solid-fueled missiles, which can be launched quicker, is significant by further complicating the challenges facing the U.S. in attacking North Korea’s nuclear forces preemptively,” he said.
The missile was fired at 7:23 a.m. (2223 GMT on Wednesday) from near Pyongyang, the South’s military said. Japan’s coast guard said it had landed by 8:19 a.m.
The nuclear envoys of South Korea, the U.S. and Japan condemned the launch, saying Pyongyang had constantly threatened regional peace with “unprecedented levels of provocations and menacing words”, South Korea’s foreign ministry said.
Japan’s defence minister, Yasukazu Hamada, said the missile appeared to have been fired eastward at a high angle and did not fall in Japanese territory, but he could not confirm whether it had flown over Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Japan’s coast guard said it had fallen in the sea east of North Korea.
Japanese authorities canceled an alert for the northern island of Hokkaido when they determined the missile would not fall nearby.
Schools in Hokkaido delayed opening and some train services were suspended.
A Hokkaido student told Japanese broadcaster NHK the alert caused momentary alarm at a train station.
“For a second in the train there was panic, but a station worker said to calm down, and people did,” the student said.
(Reporting by Hyunsu Yim, Ju-min Park, Soo-hyang Choi and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, Chang-Ran Kim in Tokyo, David Brunnstrom in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Gerry Doyle; Editing by Neil Fullick, William Mallard, Mark Potter and Sandra Maler)