At around 5:58 a.m. local time, North Korea launched a ballistic missile that flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido before landing in the Pacific Ocean. Early indications are that the missile had a flight time of around 14 minutes, had an apogee of 550 kilometers (340 miles) and splashed down some 2,700 kilometers from its launch point. While these numbers point to a medium-range ballistic missile, the possibility remains that the North Koreans either tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) with an early engine cutoff or were experimenting with a heavier warhead. Alternatively, the missile could have failed before reaching its full theoretical range. The latter possibility is reinforced by reports that the missile broke into three parts before landing.
The launch site of the latest missile test is believed to be near Sunan, where Pyongyang's international airport is located. Launching from this site continues the trend of North Korea testing its missiles from diverse locations across the country. This makes it harder to predict where and when the next North Korean weapons test will occur. It also adds to the difficulty of targeting North Korea's dispersed missile arsenal in a conflict scenario.
North Korea is heavily constrained by geography when it comes to testing long-range missiles. There is virtually no direction in which North Korea could launch an IRBM or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at a standard or minimum-energy trajectory without overflying another country's territory. Previously, Pyongyang sought to sidestep this constraint by testing its long-range missiles at a lofted trajectory, which minimizes the flight distance from the launch point by maximizing the apogee of the missile's flight. North Korea has done this with its latest ICBM and IRBM tests this year. This type of flight profile places more stress on its missiles, but Pyongyang wants to test its long-range missiles in a standard trajectory because it is the trajectory that it would rely on for missile attacks against Guam, Hawaii or the continental United States.
Because of its limitations, the missile flight path of today's launch is the least provocative one North Korea could have chosen for a standard trajectory test. The part of Japan that was overflown is lightly populated, and in the event of an accidental impact on Japanese territory it carries the least risk of damage or casualties.
In the past, Japan has emphasized its willingness to shoot down any North Korean missile deemed likely to land on Japanese soil. Tokyo, however, has maintained an ambiguous line on whether it would intercept North Korean ballistic missiles overflying its territory. It is risky to try to do so, since a miss could publicly undermine confidence in the country's ballistic missile defenses. Japan also doesn't want to encourage North Korea to test missiles that overfly Japanese territory, though until now Pyongyang has largely limited itself to high-trajectory tests that would splash down in the Sea of Japan or in Japan's exclusive economic zone. Having tested a ballistic missile over Japanese territory — and not one disguised as a satellite launch vehicle, as in previous cases — the North Koreans will feel more emboldened in continuing ballistic missile tests over Japan.