China and Russia have called on the US and one of its key allies to freeze large scale military exercises in an attempt to cool tensions, after North Korea test-fired a missile it claimed could hit America.
The two countries joined diplomatic forces to demand North Korea suspend its ballistic missile programme and for the US and South Korea to agree to put off military exercises, that have heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
After months of sabre-rattling from Donald Trump’s administration and a series of defiant weapons tests by Pyongyang, North Korea claimed it had successfully fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time, which flew a trajectory some experts said that could eventually allow a weapon to hit the US state of Alaska. The test came days after Mr Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met in Washington to discuss further sanctions against its northern neighbour, and the US President said the “era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed”.
US media said US officials believed the test was of an ICBM, while the US also requested an urgent UN Security Council session to discuss the launch.
North Korean state television said the test of the Hwasong-14, which took place early Tuesday morning local time, was overseen by leader Kim Jong-un. It said the projectile had reached an altitude of 1,731 miles and flew for 39 minutes before hitting a target in the sea.
It said North Korea was now a “full-fledged nuclear power that has been possessed of the most powerful inter-continental ballistic rocket capable of hitting any part of the world”.
Experts said the capabilities of the missile remained unclear - with some disgreement over the potential range of the missile - but said it marked a potential milestone in North Korea’s efforts to project its nuclear capability.
David Wright, of the Global Security Programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said if the reports were true, the missile would have a maximum range of around roughly 4,160 miles on a standard trajectory. “That range would not be enough to reach the lower 48 states or the large islands of Hawaii, but would allow it to reach all of Alaska,” he said in a blog post.
Karl Dewey, an analyst with Jane’s Information Group, said a successful development of an ICBM by North Korea, would “give decision-makers in Washington reason to pause for thought before deciding to strike the communist regime”.
Some have suggested the missile could even travel further, if launched in an easterly direction given the Earth’s rotation. This would technically enable North Korea to target not just all of Alaska, but a small part of northwestern Canada.
Jean Lee of Wilson Centre in Washington said the latest test was cause for people to be worried. “Test-firing a ballistic missile just days after the Trump-Moon summit, where the two leaders discussed tightening sanctions against North Korea, is Pyongyang’s way of sending a message of defiance to the US and South Korean leaders,” she said.
“It’s also strategic: if the US and South Korea are going to step up sanctions, North Korea will certainly move faster in getting its illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programmes as far along as they can before any negotiations on a freeze or dismantlement.”
Efforts by Russia and China to ease tensions was set out in a joint statement from the Russian and Chinese foreign ministries, issued shortly after President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping held talks in the Kremlin.
“The situation in the region affects the national interests of both countries,” it said. “Russia and China will work in close coordination to advance a solution to the complex problem of the Korean Peninsula in every possible way.”
The statement said Washington was using North Korea as a pretext to expand its military infrastructure in Asia and risked upsetting the strategic balance of power in the area.
On Tuesday, Heather Nauert, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said the US was “working with interagency partners on a detailed assessment” of the launch.
On Monday night, Mr Trump had written on social media: “North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea.”
Mr Trump was warned by Barack Obama in one of their final conversations before he took office, that dealing with the threat of North Korea would be one of his most pressing challenges as president. Mr Trump has been seeking to push China, which has traditionally exercised influence over North Korea, to do more to get it to halt its missile tests.
In recent weeks, however, the President appears to have grown frustrated over China’s lukewarm attitude. In a phone call on Sunday night, Mr Trump is said to have told Mr Xi, during what was described as a cordial conversation, that the US was prepared to act on its own if Beijing was unwilling.
He later wrote on Twitter: “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all.”
Mr Trump is due to meet both Mr Xi and Mr Putin during the G20 in Germany this week.
Japan said on Monday it would have a trilateral summit with the United States and South Korea on North Korea at the G20. Its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he would ask the presidents of China and Russia to play more constructive roles.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang called on Tuesday for calm and restraint, and reiterated China's opposition to North Korea's violation of U.N. resolutions on missile tests.
Responding to Trump's tweet, Mr Geng said China had been working hard to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.
“China's role is indispensable,” he told a daily news briefing. “We hope all sides can meet each other half way.”
North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, two since the beginning of last year, as well as a number of rocket tests. The pace of missile tests has risen significantly, with the country's regime saying it needs to develop its weapons in the face of what it sees as US aggression, with tests often conducted to showing its defiance when it sees regional powers getting ready for talks or sanctions.
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