Part of North Korea's missile arsenal. Photo:  AFP/North Korean Central News Agency
Part of North Korea's missile arsenal. Photo: AFP / North Korean Central News Agency

North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile early on Sunday just days after a new leader took office in the South seeking talks as the US brought a massive show of naval force into the region in response to Pyongyang’s repeated violations of a UN ban on such tests.

Friends and foes alike have all warned North Korea to end the tests, which are regarded as part of an effort to develop a nuclear weapon that can be mounted on a missile.

North Korea is already under a wide range of trade sanctions and the US is believed to be preparing an additional crackdown on banks and other companies that do business with Pyongyang.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office on Wednesday, called his first National Security Council meeting in response to the missile launch, which he called a “clear violation” of U.N. Security Council resolutions, the presidential office said.

“The president said while South Korea remains open to the possibility of dialogue with North Korea, it is only possible when the North shows a change in attitude,” Moon’s press secretary Yoon Young-chan said at a briefing.

There was no immediate reaction from China. Delegations from Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang are gathering in Beijing on Sunday to attend China’s new Silk Road forum, its biggest diplomatic event of the year.

All eyes on Moon Jae-in: South Korea’s new president offers another opportunity for China to change the balance of power in Asia.

Moon won Tuesday’s election on a platform of a moderate approach to North Korea and has said he would be willing to go to Pyongyang for talks under the right circumstances, arguing dialogue must be used in parallel with sanctions.

China, the main ally and economic lifeline of North Korea, has urged Pyongyang to stop the tests in line with UN Security Council resolutions, as have Japan and the United States.

Missile program

Beside multiple missile firings this year in the direction of Japan, the concern is North Korea plans an underground test of an atomic weapon, which would be its sixth and another step toward building a smaller nuclear bomb that can be installed in a missile.

US President Donald Trump warned in an interview with Reuters in late April that a “major, major conflict” with the North was possible, but he would prefer a diplomatic outcome. The US fears North Korea is developing a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the US mainland.

Trump last month ordered the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and other missile-armed destroyers to waters off the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has said it was ready to sink the Vinson to demonstrate its military might, as two Japanese navy ships joined the carrier group.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits the South China Sea on April 9. Photo: US Navy/Reuters

South Korea’s military said the missile fired on Sunday flew 700 kilometres (430 miles) from the Kusong area northwest of Pyongyang.

Japan said the weapon reached an altitude of more than 2,000 km and flew for 30 minutes before dropping into the sea between North Korea’s east coast and Japan. The North has consistently test-fired missiles in that direction.

Sunday’s launch, at 5:27 a.m. Seoul time (2027 GMT Saturday), came two weeks after North Korea fired a missile that disintegrated minutes into flight, marking its fourth consecutive failure since March.

The missile was”not consistent with an intercontinental ballistic missile,” the US Pacific Command said. “US Pacific Command is fully committed to working closely with our Republic of Korea and Japanese allies to maintain security,” a spokesperson said, referring to South Korea by its official name.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters on Sunday that North Korea’s repeated missile launches are a “grave threat to our country and a clear violation of UN resolutions.”

The threat

North Korea launched the Pukguksong-2 missile, an upgraded, extended-range version of its submarine-launched ballistic missile from the same Kusong site on Feb 12.

South Korean and U.S. military officials said the February launch was a significant development as it successfully tested a solid-fuel engine from a mobile launcher. The missile flew about 500 km with an altitude of 550 km.

It represented a more significant threat because of the difficulty of tracking a mobile launcher and because of the ability to keep the missile fuelled in advance, unlike liquid fuel rockets.

The North attempted but failed to test-launch ballistic missiles four consecutive times in the past two months but has conducted a variety of missile tests since the beginning of last year at an unprecedented pace.

The launch of ballistic rockets released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). Photo: Reuters

Weapons experts and government officials believe the North has accomplished some technical progress with those tests.

On Saturday, a senior North Korean diplomat who is a veteran member of its nuclear negotiating team, said the country was open to dialogue with the Trump administration under the right conditions, without elaborating.

Choe Son Hui, the North’s Foreign Ministry director general for US affairs, spoke to reporters while in transit in Beijing after attending a conference with former US officials in Norway.

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