April 30, 2017 2:00 am JST

Pyongyang shakes a divided international community

Latest missile flew right after UN heard bickering on North Korea issue

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, TSUYOSHI NAGASAWA, Nikkei staff writers

SEOUL/NEW YORK -- A U.N. Security Council meeting Friday in New York seems to have given North Korea an opening to test launch another missile.

And Pyongyang immediately took advantage of the situation at around 5:30 on Saturday morning its time, test-firing a ballistic missile from a site north of the capital.

The Japanese government said the missile flew about 50km and fell in North Korean territory. South Korea's military believes the missile reached an elevation of 71km and failed within a few minutes.

The launch came with the U.S. heaping pressure on North Korea and flexing its overwhelming military power.

U.S. officials told Reuters that the launch appears to have been of a KN-17, a new medium-range ballistic missile. One South Korean military expert said it was likely a modified Scud missile using solid fuel.

A missile that uses solid fuel is more difficult to detect on the launch pad than one that uses liquid fuel, which needs its own launch pad infrastructure.

When the test occurred, the USS Carl Vinson strike force was approaching the Korean Peninsula.

It was North Korea's third failed missile launch this month. The first two came from Sinpo, in the eastern part of the country, on April 5 and April 16.

Tokyo, Washington and Seoul had feared that North Korea could conduct nuclear tests or launch an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday, the 85th anniversary of the Korean People's Army. Pyongyang did neither that day, settling for one of its largest artillery exercises ever.

Apparently, it was waiting to let its thunder rip -- or fizzle, as it happened -- until after the U.N. Security Council session, where Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions were discussed.

Kim Jong Un has clearly shown he will resist pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump. His intention seems to be to light a fuse under the international community, which is already divided on how to deal with his regime.

Kim wants to show that he will not bend to pressure. At the same time, he wants to avoid a full-on collision with the U.S.

There are talks within the Trump administration that the U.S. should take military action if North Korea conducts another nuclear test or launches an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. mainland.

It seems North Korea is trying not to cross these red lines. And since its latest missile launch seems to have been a failure, the U.S. is not expected to respond militarily.

Still, the Trump administration has not relaxed its aggressive military posture. The USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, and its strike group arrived in the Sea of Japan on Saturday just after the test and began joint exercises with the South Korean military.

The U.S. is also putting diplomatic pressure on China, North Korea's sole major ally.

Before the failed missile launch, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted at sanctioning third parties. "We will not hesitate to sanction third-country entities and individuals supporting the [North]."

Tillerson's remarks suggest that Chinese companies which do business with North Korea could be slapped with sanctions. In effect, the U.S. is threatening to throw up roadblocks to Chinese companies' international operations if Beijing does not cooperate in bringing Pyongyang to heel.

However, the U.N. meeting revealed divisions among major countries on the issue.

When Tillerson called for "new sanctions," Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida requested that the international community "strengthen pressure" on North Korea. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had another idea. "North Korea and the U.S. should resume dialogue," he said.

He then added, "China is not the center of the problem."

Gennady Gatilov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, was in sync with China.

The test-firing on Saturday came just after these disagreements were aired at the U.N.

According to the Institute for Science and International Security, a U.S. think tank, North Korea at the end of last year could have already been in possession of 13 to 20 nuclear weapons.

There is no sign that matters on the Korean Peninsula will cool down anytime soon.

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