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Friday, September 20, 2019

North Korea leader urges more missile launches targeting Pacific

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for more weapons launches targeting the Pacific Ocean to advance his country's ability to contain Guam, state media said Wednesday, a day after Pyongyang for the first time flew a ballistic missile designed to carry a nuclear payload over Japan.

Tuesday's aggressive missile launch — likely the longest ever from North Korea — over a close US ally sends a clear message of defiance as Washington and Seoul conduct annual military drills. The Korean Central News Agency said the launch was a "muscle-flexing" countermeasure to the Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint exercises that conclude Thursday. Pyongyang views the drills as invasion rehearsals and often conducts weapons tests and escalates its rhetoric when they are held.

The KCNA report said the missile was an intermediate-range Hwasong-12, which the North first successfully tested in May and threatened to fire into waters near Guam earlier this month.

Kim expressed "great satisfaction" over the launch that he called a "meaningful prelude" to containing Guam and said North Korea would continue to watch the US demeanor before it decides future actions, KCNA said.

The US territory is home to key US military bases that North Korea finds threatening.

Kim also said it's "necessary to positively push forward the work for putting the strategic force on a modern basis by conducting more ballistic rocket launching drills with the Pacific as a target in the future."

The launch seemed designed to show that North Korea can back up a threat to target Guam, if it chooses to do so, while also establishing a potentially dangerous precedent that could see future missiles flying over Japan.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile traveled around 2,700 kilometers (1,677 miles) and reached a maximum height of 550 kilometers (341 miles) as it flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

President Donald Trump said North Korea had signaled its "contempt for its neighbors" and that "all options are on the table" in terms of a US response. Trump said in his statement that "threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime's isolation in the region and among all nations of the world."

The UN Security Council strongly condemned the launch, which came less than a month after the council imposed its toughest-yet sanctions on North Korea. The statement released after a meeting Tuesday evening in New York doesn't mention any potential new sanctions but calls for strict implementation of existing ones.

Any new test worries Washington and its allies because it presumably puts North Korea a step closer to its goal of an arsenal of nuclear missiles that can reliably target the United States. Tuesday's test, however, looks especially aggressive to Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.

North Korea has conducted launches at an unusually fast pace this year — 13 times, Seoul said — and some analysts believe it could have viable long-range nuclear missiles before the end of Trump's first term in early 2021.

Seoul says that while North Korea has twice before fired rockets it said were carrying satellites over Japan — in 1998 and 2009 — it has never before used a ballistic missile, which is unambiguously designed for military strikes.

North Korea also chose not to fire its most recent missile at a lofted angle, as it did in previous launches to avoid other countries, and Seoul's spy service said the North launched from an unusual spot: the international airport in its capital, Pyongyang. The North still claimed on Wednesday that its recent launch "had no impact on the security of the neighboring countries."

Some outside observers said launching a road-mobile missile from an airport runway could demonstrate the North's ability to fire its missiles from anywhere in the country.

The launch is also another rebuke to Trump, who suggested last week that his tough approach to North Korea, which included threats to unleash "fire and fury," meant Kim "is starting to respect us."

Japanese officials made their usual strongly worded condemnations of the launch.

"We will do our utmost to protect people's lives," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said. "This reckless act of launching a missile that flies over our country is an unprecedented, serious and important threat."

Tokyo said there was no reported damage from the missile. Residents on Hokkaido were warned by loudspeakers, phone alerts and an email that told them to stay indoors.

The launch was also condemned by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and a number of other countries. (AP)
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