TOKYO —In another apparent act of defiance of international norms, North Korea fired a long-range missile over Japanese airspace Sunday, bringing quick condemnation from the United States and its allies in the region.
The launch is widely believed to be a test of a new missile system that could reach as far as the United States, and comes only weeks after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear weapons test. Both are banned by U.N. resolutions.
North Korean state television said in a special broadcast Sunday that it had placed an observation satellite into orbit. However, U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii said it had “detected and tracked today what we assess was a North Korean missile.”
Secretary of State John Kerry called Sunday’s test “a major provocation” that threatens the security of the region and the United States and said the U.S. would work with members of the U.N. Security Council on “significant measures” to hold North Korea to account for the launch.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice condemned the test in a statement, saying it “represents yet another destabilizing and provocative action” and “a serious threat to our interests.”
Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the launch was “intolerable” and a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Abe had directed the government to consider expanding current sanctions against North Korea.
U.S. forces tracked the missile and at no time did it pose a threat to the United States or its allies, Pacific Command said in a statement Sunday.
North Korean television said the launch was ordered by leader Kim Jong Un and that the country would continue to launch satellites in the future.
Japan’s Ministry of Defense said the launch took place at 9:31 a.m. local time. It said the missile separated into five segments before passing over Japan’s southwest island chain, with the final segment landing the western Pacific Ocean about 1,242 miles south of the island of Okinawa.
Japan had deployed Patriot anti-ballistic missile systems and three warships equipped for missile defenses prior to the test but did not attempt to shoot down the missile or debris on Sunday, according to the defense ministry.
It is the first test of long-range missile technology by North Korea since December 2012. Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, the country is banned from testing long-range missiles or nuclear weapons.
Japan’s Kyodo News Service reported that China had expressed “regret” over the launch.
Abe ordered his government to quickly analyze the launch and provide information to the nation.
North Korea tested what it said was a hydrogen bomb in early January.
International governments worry nuclear tests and long-range missile launches signal Pyongyang is getting closer to creating a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile capable of reaching targets as far away as the U.S. West Coast.
“We absolutely cannot allow this,” Abe told reporters at the prime minister’s residence, according to The Associated Press. “We will take action to totally protect the safety and well-being of our people.”
The United States, Japan and South Korea immediately requested an emergency meeting of the UN security council to discuss the launch, council diplomats told Reuters. The meeting was likely to take place on Sunday in New York.
The North’s move came less than a day after the reclusive nation moved up the window for its planned launch to Feb. 7-14 from Feb. 8-25. No reason was given for the change.
While the North claims such efforts are a benign attempt to develop the capability for putting satellites into space, outside governments say it is a cover for testing ballistic missiles. That move constitutes yet another major violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions banning Pyongyang from carrying out any nuclear or ballistic missile tests.
Recent commercial satellite imagery analyzed by U.S. researchers showed tanker trucks at the launch pad at North Korea’s Sohae facility, which likely indicates the filling of fuel and oxidizer tanks in preparation for the launch, The Associated Press reported.
North Korea tested nuclear explosive devices in 2006, 2009 and 2013, and claimed it successfully delivered a satellite into orbit in December 2012, the last time it launched a long-range rocket.
South Korean analysts speculated the secretive North Korean leadership, which is sensitive to symbolic gestures, was trying to pull off the launch ahead of Feb. 16, the birthday of late dictator Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un.
Ahead of the launch, the South Korean defense ministry said Seoul and the U.S. deployed key military assets, including the South’s Aegis-equipped destroyers and radar spy planes, to track the North Korean rocket after its launch. The U.S. stations more than 28,000 troops in the South as a buttress against North Korean aggression.
On Friday, President Obama spoke by phone with President Xi Jinping of China, North Korea’s only major ally, and the two sides agreed a launch would represent a “provocative and destabilizing action,” the White House said.
The two leaders said they would coordinate their responses to Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test and would not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state.
“The leaders emphasized the importance of a strong and united international response to North Korea’s provocations, including through an impactful U.N. Security Council Resolution,” the White House said.
China, however, is unlikely to join any call by the U.S. and South Korea to tighten sanctions against North Korea. Beijing worries a strong economic move against North Korea might provoke a regime collapse and send refugees streaming across the border, analysts say. China is responsible for about 70% of the North’s trade volume, according to South Korean estimates.