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A man watches a TV news program reporting about North Korea's missile launch at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017.. North Korea reportedly fired a ballistic missile early Sunday in what would be its first such test of the year and an implicit challenge to President Donald Trump's new administration. Details of the launch, including the type of missile, were scant. The letters read "The ruling and the opposition parties denounce North Korea's missile launch."

A man watches a TV news program reporting about North Korea's missile launch at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017.. North Korea reportedly fired a ballistic missile early Sunday in what would be its first such test of the year and an implicit challenge to President Donald Trump's new administration. Details of the launch, including the type of missile, were scant. The letters read "The ruling and the opposition parties denounce North Korea's missile launch." (Lee Jin-man/AP Photo)

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea fired an intermediate-range missile into the sea off its east coast on Sunday, dealing its first major challenge to President Donald Trump less than a month after he took office.

Trump pledged solidarity with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who called the launch “absolutely intolerable” and demanded that North Korea comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at halting its nuclear weapons program.

“The United States of America stands behind Japan, a great ally, 100 percent. Thank you,” Trump said during a brief joint press conference at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

He didn’t specifically condemn the missile test or mention South Korea.

U.S. and South Korean military officials ruled out the use of an intercontinental ballistic missile, despite Pyongyang's assertion that it was close to testing an ICBM.

But North Korea observers have been expecting the isolated state to conduct a provocation to test Trump’s policies, as it has done with past presidents.

The missile was launched at a steep angle from Banghyon air base in a western part of the country, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency.

It reached a height of nearly 350 miles and traveled 310 miles before crashing into the Sea of Japan, according to the report.

The JCS revised an earlier statement that the missile appeared to be a Rodong, saying a joint analysis of U.S. satellite data showed it was likely a modified Musudan missile with a solid-fuel engine.

Last year, North Korea tested several Musudan missiles — which are believed to have a range that could reach as far as Guam. Most were considered failures but one reached an altitude of more than 620 miles.

The U.S. has about 28,500 servicemembers stationed in South Korea and some 50,000 in Japan.

U.S. Strategic Command confirmed its systems detected and tracked the launch of a “medium- or intermediate-range ballistic missile” near the northwestern city of Kusong.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s address that the country was in the “final stages” of preparations to test an intercontinental ballistic missile. That would be a major step toward its stated goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could target the U.S. mainland.

Trump responded by tweeting, “It won’t happen!”

Seoul condemned the missile test, saying it was an attempt by North Korea to gain leverage by showing off its nuclear and missile capabilities after recent statements by Trump indicating he would take a hard line toward the country.

“This demonstrates the irrational nature of the Kim Jong Un regime that has been fanatically obsessed with its nuclear and missile development,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that the launch was an “explicit and clear violation” of U.N. resolutions.

Trump has not elaborated on how his Asia policies might differ from those of former President Barack Obama, who relied on sanctions and diplomatic pressure against the North.

Trump rattled nerves in South Korea and Japan when he made comments on the campaign trail suggesting the two allies should pay more for their defense.

But he has signaled loyalty to the alliances and a hard line toward Pyongyang since taking office. Trump has also said he would press China to do more to rein in its communist protege.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis traveled to South Korea and Japan in his debut overseas trip in his new role, offering much-sought reassurance that the U.S. would maintain its commitments to its staunch allies.

Mattis issued a stern warning in Seoul that any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea would be met with an “effective and overwhelming response.”

Trump also said defeating the nuclear threat from North Korea is a “very, very high priority” in other remarks after meeting with Abe in Washington last week.

Tensions have been high since North Korea conducted two underground nuclear tests and tried to test-fire some two dozen ballistic missiles last year. The U.N. Security Council responded by tightening economic sanctions to punish the country for defying resolutions banning its use of ballistic-missile technology.

Sunday’s launch was the first since mid-October. Experts have said that besides the Trump factor, the North was likely keeping a low profile while political turmoil in Seoul played out.

Lawmakers voted to impeach South Korean President Park Geun-hye in December after mass protests over a corruption scandal.

She has been suspended, and the prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, took over as acting president while the Constitutional Court decides whether to uphold the impeachment, which would force an early election.

The National Security Council convened an emergency meeting to discuss the missile test on Sunday.

gamel.kim@stripes.com Twitter: @kimgamel


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