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North Korea carried out a missile test directly over Japan that prompted the government in Tokyo to warn residents in its path to take cover. After a flight of nearly 1, 700 miles, the missile flew over the northern island of Hokkaido, broke into three pieces and landed in the sea.  Public television programs in Japan were interrupted announcing the missile’s flight over the country and warned citizens to take cover in a sturdy building or basement.

North Korea has fired projectiles over Japanese territory twice before.  Once in 1998,  prompting a minor diplomatic crisis in Asia, and once again at the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009. In both those cases, the North said the rockets were carrying satellites into orbit but they made no such claim in this case.

The missile was launched from a site near Pyongyang’s international airport, not the usual launch site in the northeast, according to the South Korean military. They are still trying to determine what type of missile was launched but it’s believed to be a Hwasong-12, a newly developed intermediate range weapon.  North Korea’s usual launch sites are in remote areas, where there would be little concern about civilian casualties.  A strike near Pyongyang would risk many civilian deaths, suggesting that the real goal was to strike at the regime.

The commander of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s Air Defense Command said that the armed forces did not try to shoot down the missile from North Korea because they did not detect a threat to Japanese territory.  They warned citizens in its path to take cover in case any parts fell on Japan.  This latest launch appears to be the first of a missile powerful enough to potentially carry a nuclear warhead.

North Korea’s ambassador to the UN, Han Tae-song, defended his country’s actions saying they were a response to military drills carried out by the US and its allies in the region.  “Now that the US has openly declared its hostile intention towards North Korea by raising joint aggressive military exercises despite repeated warnings… my country has every reason to respond with tough counter-measures as an exercise of its rights to self-defence.”

US and Japanese forces have just finished a joint drill in Hokkaido while another annual exercise involving tens of thousands of South Korean and US military personnel is still under way in South Korea.  China warned that tensions on the Korean peninsula had reached a “tipping point” but said the US and South Korea were partly to blame. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying criticised the two countries for their repeated military drills, which North Korea perceives as practice for an invasion.

North Korea has been working on its missile program for decades, with weapons based on the Soviet-developed Scud.   While it has conducted short and medium-range tests on many occasions,  the pace of testing has increased.  Experts speculate that North Korea has made significant advances towards its goal of building a reliable long-range nuclear-capable weapon.  Though, no one knows how close North Korea is to miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to put on a missile.

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