(ATTN: UPDATES with revised information on type of missile)
By Choi Kyong-ae
SEOUL, Feb. 12 (Yonhap) -- North Korea appears to have staged a low-intensity provocation with its test-firing of an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), seeking to see how the new U.S. administration will respond while avoiding provoking Washington too much, experts here said Sunday.
The North launched a ballistic missile, presumed to be the Musudan, at around 7:55 a.m. from Banghyon air base in the western province of North Pyongan Province. It flew about 500 kilometers before falling into the East Sea. Its flight distance indicates it was not an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), according to Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
The North likely opted to launch the IRBM this time, instead of an ICBM capable of striking the U.S. mainland, in order not to overly antagonize the new Donald Trump administration, they said.
"Today's missile launch was definitely a low-intensity armed provocation to test the response from the Trump government. North Korea is likely to wait and see what policies Washington will adopt for before carrying out an ICBM test," Cho Seong-ryol, an analyst at Institute for National Security Strategy, said.
His view is shared by many other security experts in South Korea.
"North Korea is well aware of the fact that it won't have anything to gain if it conducts an ICBM test even before Trump outlines a policy guidelines towards the rogue regime. Hence the firing of an intermediate-range missile," Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Kyungnam University, said.
The missile launch was also an apparent provocation to boast its nuclear and missile capabilities in protest against the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle joint military exercise to be carried out by Seoul and Washington next month, they said.
With the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier widely expected to take part in the annual drill, the allies plan the "biggest-ever" exercise this year amid ever-growing threats posed by the North. The joint maneuvers can send a clear message to the North that the allies stand shoulder-to-shoulder on deterring it.
Pyongyang has long denounced exercises like Key Resolve as a rehearsal for a northern invasion despite Seoul and Washington's assurance of the drill's defensive nature.
Pointing out the missile launch came amid growing calls in the U.S. for the need for a preemptive strike on the nuclear North, however, military officials remained cautious, warning of a possible missile launch around the military drill which lasts through April.
"North Korea conducted a test of a rocket engine that could power an ICBM missile and its leader Kim Jong-un said in his annual New Year's address that the North's preparations for launching an ICBM have reached the final stage. Given this, the North may test-fire an ICBM in the coming months," a military official said.
Meanwhile, Seoul and Washington are jointly conducting an assessment to find out whether the missile launch was successful or not, the JCS said.
The JCS also said the missile was launched at a very steep angle, reached the height of 550 km and then flew about 500 km before splashing into its eastern sea.
It was the first test-firing of a North Korean missile since Trump became U.S. president on Jan. 20. and the country's first major provocation in 2017.
South Korea, the U.S. and Japan strongly condemned North Korea's missile test, issuing a statement and holding press conferences to deliver their messages against the North's provocations.
The missile launch is an explicit and clear violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions banning tests that can contribute to the advancement of nuclear weapons delivery capability, the JCS said in a statement. It said Seoul is keeping close tabs on the North.
"This demonstrates the irrational nature of the Kim Jong-un regime that has been fanatically obsessed with its nuclear and missile development. Pyongyang's repeated provocations would only strengthen the international community's resolve to achieve the North's denuclearization," South Korea's foreign ministry emphasized.
In an unscheduled joint press conference in Florida on Saturday (U.S. time), U.S. President Donald Trump said the U.S. stands behind Japan "100 percent." Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced the North's missile launch as "absolutely intolerable" and urged the communist state to comply with all U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The Banghyon base is the same place where North Korea test-fired Musudan missiles on Oct. 15 and 20. Last year, the North tested a total of eight Musudan missiles believed to be capable of reaching the U.S. territory of Guam.
In the one "successful" Musudan launch to date, the missile flew some 400 km, well short of its maximum range, but the flight distance was because the North fired the missile at a high angle in order to avoid breaching Japan's airspace.
Back then, the Pentagon confirmed after the launch that the missile reached an altitude exceeding 1,000 kilometers.
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