North Korea Launches Missile as Defense Secretary James Mattis Inspects U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

A Tokyo passerby looks at a TV screen reporting news about North Korea's missile launch on September 15. Issei Kato/Reuters

Defense Secretary James Mattis couldn’t have been in a more appropriate location during North Korea’s latest test missile, which passed over the Japanese island of Hokkaido on Thursday.

Mattis was visiting the U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska, which oversees U.S. nuclear forces, as part of three-day-long nuclear posture review.

Once alerted to the launch, the Defense Secretary “immediately” went to the operations center with U.S. Strategic Command General Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten to assess the launch and coordinate communications among all commands, Tara Copp, Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times, reported on Twitter.

“We have just got done with the calls we always make to coordinate among ourselves. Steady as she goes,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him, quoted by Reuters.

As part of his inspection of the U.S. nuclear capabilities, Mattis championed the nuclear deterrent in the face of increasing threats from North Korea.

“In a deterrent, you can leave no doubt at all," he told reporters on Wednesday, "Don't try it. It won't work. You can't take us out."

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was on an official visit to the U.K., where he discussed with both British and French officials how to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program and engage in dialogue, condemned the launch in an official statement.

“These continued provocations only deepen North Korea's diplomatic and economic isolation,” said a statement from the State Department, calling on all nations—Russia and China in particular—to take stronger measures to isolate Pyongyang both economically and diplomatically.

“China supplies North Korea with most of its oil. Russia is the largest employer of North Korean forced labor,” read the statement. “China and Russia must indicate their intolerance for these reckless missile launches by taking direct actions of their own.”

09_15_NK_missile A Hokkaido Prefecture staff and a Self-Defense Force member confer while a monitor shows news of North Korea's latest ballistic missile launch at Japan's Hokkaido Prefecture headquarters on September 15. The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

China's foreign ministry condemned the missile launch at a regular press conference on Friday, stressing his country's intention to fully and strictly implement the U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang. The ministry’s spokesperson, Hua Chunying, also repeated China’s stance that it is not solely responsible for events on the Korean Peninsula.

“The focal point of the conflict is not China; the party raising tensions is not China; the key to resolving the Korean Peninsula issue is not China's. The one that ties the bell is the one who should remove it. The various directly involved parties should take responsibility to handle the situation, carry out their duty. Any attempt to wash their hands of the issue is irresponsible and unhelpful for resolving the issue," she said, quoted by Reuters.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov joined in the international condemnation of North Korea's latest launch.

“In Russia, we are deeply concerned about these provocative launches which are further stoking tensions. Clearly demonstrating that our position is that such launches are unacceptable is the most tangible thing we can do right now,” he said.

North Korea fired what is believed to be an intermediate range ballistic missile, the Hwasong-12, the same rocket it launched over Japan on August 28 and that flew for an estimated 1,680 miles before breaking up in three pieces and landing in the Pacific.

This time, the missile travelled further—around 2,300 miles—with the Japanese government reporting the missile landed 1,240 miles east of Hokkaido.

While sirens, TV and text messages relayed alerts in parts of northern Japan advising people to seek shelter, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan did not destroy the missile because it wasn’t going to land on Japanese soil, The Japan Times reported.

The Hwasong-12 is North Korea’s missile of choice in its plans to strike the U.S. territory of Guam, which lies around 2,100 miles away from Pyongyang. Much like the launch in August, North Korea’s firing of the missile into the Pacific is intended to show that it could hit Guam if it wanted to, adding credibility to the threat.

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