When North Korea launched a ballistic missile toward northern Japan’s Hokkaido Island late Monday, its trajectory was initially unclear. Fearing the worst, the Japanese government interrupted television programming and issued digital alerts advising locals to find shelter. Though the missile ultimately flew over Japan and landed in the northern Pacific Ocean after a roughly 1,700-mile journey, the flyover was a powerful symbol of North Korea’s resolute effort to develop its missile program in spite of longstanding international opposition.
North Korea has flown projectiles over Japan twice before. The first instance, in 1998, came with no warning; North Korea gave advance notice of the second, in 2009. The country couched both of those events as being part of satellite launches. Monday’s surprise launch came with no such explanation. But it fits into the larger context of North Korea’s rapidly escalating nuclear and missile ambitions—and, more alarmingly, it shows outright disdain for President Donald Trump’s recent bluster.
It was just a few weeks ago, after all, that Trump declared that further threats from North Korea would prompt “fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” While the rhetoric seemed intended to cow North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, repeated threats against US territory Guam and Monday’s missile scare suggest that Trump’s words, along with recent military exercises conducted by the US and South Korea, had the exact opposite impact.
“It’s nothing out of the ordinary to do what North Korea did in terms of the frequency of the launches, but there may be an added motive in terms of responding to what they perceive as hostile actions, whether it’s US–South Korea military exercises this month or US–Japan exercises that are going on in the Hokkaido area as well,” says Frank Aum, a former Department of Defense senior adviser on North Korea. “Or it just may be a message to President Trump and the international community that they are undeterred.”
While the Japan flyover rightly garnered the most attention, other aspects of the launch seemed designed to provoke as well. For one, the missile did not have a so-called lofted trajectory, as many recent tests have. Instead of being aimed to reach a high altitude and cover less horizontal ground, the missile traveled on a trajectory more similar to what would actually be used in an attack. In the past North Korea has said it used lofted trajectories to…