Regional tensions spiked after Pyongyang test-fired a missile that flew over Japan's northern Hokkaido island. The test came as South Korea and the United States conducted military drills, and rattled global markets.

Passers-by watch a TV news program showing an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Tokyo, Saturday, August 26, 2017. North Korea fired a missile early on August 29, 2017, from near Pyongyang that flew over northern Japan.
Passers-by watch a TV news program showing an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Tokyo, Saturday, August 26, 2017. North Korea fired a missile early on August 29, 2017, from near Pyongyang that flew over northern Japan. (AP)

North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan's northern Hokkaido island into the sea early on Tuesday, prompting warnings for residents to take cover while provoking a sharp reaction from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US President Donald Trump and other leaders.

The test, one of the most provocative ever from the isolated state, appeared to have been of a recently developed intermediate-range Hwasong-12 missile, experts said.

It came as US and South Korean forces conduct annual military drills on the peninsula, to which North Korea strenuously objects.

The world had received North Korea’s latest message "loud and clear," Trump said.

"This regime has signalled its contempt for its neighbours, for all members of the United Nations, and for minimum standards of acceptable international behaviour," Trump said in a statement released by the White House.

"Threatening and destabilising actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table."

Trump spoke with Abe and the two agreed that North Korea "poses a grave and growing direct threat to the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, as well as to countries around the world," the White House said.

"President Trump and Prime Minister Abe committed to increasing pressure on North Korea, and doing their utmost to convince the international community to do the same," the statement said.

TRT World's Denee Savoia reports on tensions in the Korean peninsula. 

South Korea's military said the missile was launched from near the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, just before 6:00 am (2100 GMT Monday) and flew 2,700 kilometres (1,680 miles), reaching an altitude of about 550 kilometres (340 miles).

Reactions 

British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Tuesday she would discuss North Korea's missile test with Abe during a visit to Japan this week.

"We will continue to work with our international partners to put pressure on North Korea to stop those illegal tests and of course, I will have the opportunity on my visit to Japan over the next few days to be discussing those issues with Prime Minister Abe," May said.

The US disarmament ambassador said Washington still needed to do "further analysis" of the launch, which would be the subject of a UN Security Council meeting later in the day.

"It's another provocation by North Korea, they just seem to continue to happen," US envoy Robert Wood told reporters in Geneva.

"This is a big concern of course to my government and to a number of other governments," Wood said before a session of the UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament.

North Korean Ambassador Han Tae Song told the session the United States was driving the Korean peninsula "towards and extreme level of explosion" by deploying strategic assets and conducting nuclear war drills.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned North Korea's missile launch and called on Pyongyang to comply with international obligations and work toward reopening communications.

"The launch undermines regional security and stability and efforts to create space for dialogue," a spokeswoman for Guterres said in a statement.

Tensions escalate

Earlier this month, North Korea threatened to fire four Hwasong-12 missiles into the sea near the US Pacific territory of Guam after US 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 a grave threat to our nation," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters.

Abe said he spoke to Trump on Tuesday and they agreed to increase pressure on North Korea. 

Trump also said the United States was "100 percent with Japan," Abe told reporters.

"We will respond strongly based on our steadfast alliance with the United States if North Korea continues nuclear and missile provocations," the South's foreign ministry said in a statement.

Four South Korean fighter jets bombed a military firing range on Tuesday after President Moon Jae-in asked the military to demonstrate capabilities to counter North Korea.

South Korea and the United States had discussed deploying additional "strategic assets" on the Korean peninsula, the presidential Blue House said in a statement, without giving any more details.

North Korea remained defiant.

"The US should know that it can neither browbeat the DPRK with any economic sanctions and military threats and blackmails nor make the DPRK flinch from the road chosen by itself," North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun said later on Tuesday, using the initials of the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Stop "provocations"

The foreign ministers of Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) urged North Korea on Tuesday to stop its provocations and obey UN resolutions.

"Regarding the launching of the missiles from North Korea, we stick to the resolutions of the United Nations and we insist on the fact that the North Koreans must respect those resolutions from the United Nations," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference on a visit to the UAE, according to a translation of his remarks.

Speaking in Abu Dhabi, the two ministers offered a forceful warning for Pyongyang, with Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan particularly calling for North Korea to stop its "provocations."

The UN Security Council would meet later on Tuesday to discuss the test, diplomats said.

Earlier this month, the 15-member Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea in response to two long-range missile launches in July.

Japan warns public of test

North Korea fired what it said was a rocket carrying a communications satellite into orbit over Japan in 2009 after warning of its plans. The United States, Japan and South Korea considered it a ballistic missile test.

"It's pretty unusual," said Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies in California. "North Korea's early space launches in 1998 and 2009 went over Japan, but that's not the same thing as firing a missile."

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the latest missile fell into the sea 1,180 kilometres (735 miles) east of Cape Erimo on Hokkaido.

Television and radio broadcasters broke into their regular programming with a "J-Alert" warning citizens of the missile launch. Bullet train services were temporarily halted and warnings went out over loudspeakers in towns in Hokkaido.

"I was woken by the missile alert on my cellphone," said Ayaka Nishijima, 41, an office worker from Morioka, the capital of Iwate prefecture, 300 kilometres (180 miles) south of Cape Erimo.

"I didn't feel prepared at all. Even if we get these alerts there's nowhere to run. It's not like we have a basement or bomb shelter, all we can do is get away from the window," she said.

Markets spooked

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. 

Japan's Nikkei 225 index fell almost one percent to a near four-month low, while South Korea's KOSPI index was down a similar percentage.

South Korea's finance ministry said it will monitor financial markets around the clock and step in if needed.

Prospects for dialogue?

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to make a peace overture to North Korea last week, welcoming what he called the restraint Pyongyang had shown by not conducting any tests since July.

Some experts said Kim was trying to pressure Washington to the negotiating table with its latest test.

"[North Korea] think that by exhibiting their capability, the path to dialogue will open," Masao Okonogi, professor emeritus at Japan's Keio University, said by phone from Seoul.

"That logic, however, is not understood by the rest of the world, so it's not easy," he said.

The Japanese military did not attempt to shoot down the missile, which passed over Japanese territory around 6:07 am local time (2107 GMT), Japanese Minister of Defence Itsunori Onodera said. The missile broke into three pieces and fell into waters off Hokkaido, he said.

Experts say defences in Japan and South Korea that are designed to hit incoming missiles would struggle to bring down a missile flying high overhead.

In Washington, the Pentagon confirmed the missile flew over Japan but said it did not pose a threat to North America and that it was gathering further information.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said China, North Korea's main ally and trading partner, needed to do more.

"China has to ratchet up the pressure," Turnbull told Australian radio. "They have condemned these missiles tests like everyone else but with unique leverage comes unique responsibility."

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 ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programmes, saying they are necessary to counter perceived hostility from the United States and its allies.

Source: Reuters