A woman walks past a TV screen in Tokyo showing news of North Korea's missile launch over Japan August 29, 2017.  Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
A woman walks past a TV screen in Tokyo showing news of North Korea's missile launch over Japan August 29, 2017. Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

North Korea fired a missile that flew over Japan and landed in waters off the northern region of Hokkaido early on Tuesday, South Korean and Japanese officials said, marking a sharp escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The test, which experts said appeared to be an intermediate-range Hwasong 12 missile, came as US and South Korean forces conduct annual military drills on the peninsula. North Korea calls the drills a preparation for invasion.

In response to the missile launch, a squadron of four South Korean F-15K fighter jets staged a live-bombing drill against a simulated target representing North Korea’s leadership facilities, Yonhap news agency reported.

The aircraft dropped eight MK-84 bombs, each weighing about a ton, at the target to show the capability of completely destroying the enemy’s leadership in case of an emergency, Yonhap said, citing the South Korean airforce.

“Our Air Force will wipe out the leadership of the North Korean regime with the strong strike capability if it threatens the security of our people,” Major Lee Kuk-no, who led the training mission, was quoted as saying by Yonhap.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters.

Robert Kelly, associate professor at Pusan National University’s Department of Political Science, said South Korea’s response was a carefully considered escalation, according to a CNN report.

“North Koreans can’t just shoot missiles over people’s countries, there has to be some response,” Kelly said. “(It) looks somewhat escalatory, it’s got to be tough, to send a signal, but they don’t want to be too tough because no one wants to get into a war.”

Earlier this month, North Korea threatened to fire 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 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.

The United States, Japan and South Korea asked for a United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the test, diplomats said. A meeting of the 15-member Security Council would be held later on Tuesday, they said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters about North Korea’s missile launch in Tokyo, Japan, August 29, 2017. Kyodo/via Reuters.

North Korea fired what it said was a rocket carrying a communications satellite into orbit over Japan in 2009. The United States, Japan and South Korea considered that launch to have been a ballistic missile test.

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

Loudspeaker warnings

The Japanese government’s J-Alert system broke into radio and TV programming, warning citizens of the possible missile. Bullet train services were temporarily halted and warnings went out over loudspeakers in towns in Hokkaido.

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.

South Korea’s military said the missile was launched from the Sunan region near the North Korean capital just before 6 a.m. (2100 GMT Monday) and flew 2,700 km (1,680 miles), reaching an altitude of about 550 km (340 miles).

Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported the missile broke into three pieces and fell into waters off Hokkaido.

The Japanese military did not attempt to shoot down the missile, which passed over Japanese territory around 6:07 a.m. local time (2107 GMT).

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

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 weapons programs, saying they are necessary to counter perceived US hostility.

North Korea again asked the UN Security Council to meet to discuss the ongoing joint US-South Korean military drills, according to a letter released on Monday by the North Korean mission to the United Nations.

The Aug. 25 letter to the Security Council and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres from North Korean UN Ambassador Ja Song Nam described the military exercises as a “grave threat” to the Korean peninsula and international peace and security.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

“It is the fair and square self-defensive right of the DPRK to cope with reckless, aggressive war manoeuvres and the U.S. would be wholly responsible for any catastrophic consequences to be entailed from the result,” Ja wrote, using the initials of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Similar previous requests have gone unanswered by the Security Council, which unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea earlier this month in response to its launch of two long-range missiles in July.

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