It was a confusing and nervous morning for the inhabitants of northern Japan.
At 07:50 local time, air-raid alarms sounded in Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures and television programs were interrupted to tell people to take shelter. The Japanese coast guard reported that a missile fired from North Korea was headed for Japan. North Korean missiles have crossed Japan before – one did so last month – but never this far south.
LOOK: South Korea responds to North Korea by launching 3 missiles from F-15 and F-16 fighter jets into North Korean waters
But the missile launched this morning did not enter Japanese airspace. According to South Korean military sources, the missile failed in mid-flight and fell, plunging into the Sea of Japan.
So please, everyone calm down and go back to your morning coffee. Well, no.
First of all, firing ballistic missiles at your neighbors without warning, leaving them to guess where they will land, is not normal behavior.
This is an extremely provocative and dangerous act, completely outside the norms of international behavior. It is a threat to aviation and shipping. If the missiles break, debris can rain down on those below.
Second, this comes a day after North Korea launched a record number of missiles into the sea off the coast of South Korea.
In addition, this action comes just days before the crucial mid-term elections in the United States and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hopes that the exhibition of his military capabilities will focus attention on the US capital.
What is Pyongyang up to?
North Korea is deliberately increasing tensions with its neighbors. Analysts believe that is preparing for something biggersuch as a nuclear test or a full-fledged long-range ballistic missile test in the Pacific, or both.
All this noise has a political objective. It’s a pattern Pyongyang used in 2010 and again in 2017. First, escalate tensions to a terrifying level, and then ask for compromise and concessions from South Korea, Japan and the United States. Pyongyang is almost certainly doing the same now.
But Kim Jong-un has a second goal. North Korea is still far from perfecting its missile technology.
After launching the missile into space, the warhead detaches and returns to Earth in a “reentry vehicle.” This must be able to withstand the enormous heat and pressure that is generated by plunging into the atmosphere.
In previous tests it appears that North Korean reentry vehicles have failed. Therefore, Pyongyang needs to continue testing to perfect its technology.
This Thursday’s test appears to have flown in what is called a “elevated trajectory”, flying high into space, about 2,000 km, and then abruptly descending again. This may have been done to test a long-range missile, without flying over Japan. If today’s test was yet another failure, it only shows how much Pyongyang still has to do.
But the ultimate goal is not just to threaten South Korea and Japan. North Korea can already do that.
It is about threatening the United States with a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Today’s test will surely have shocked those who heard the sound of the sirens.
But if North Korea’s intention is to cow Japan, is having the opposite effect. Pyongyang’s missile tests, along with China’s recent threats to Taiwan, are having a profound impact on Japanese politics. For decades, the Japanese right has called for the postwar pacifist constitution to be scrapped and for the country to rearm.
Until now, most ordinary Japanese have said no.
But that is changing, and now security officials have all the justification they need to go ahead. Next month the government will propose doubling the defense budget over the next decade and the acquisition of long-range strike weapons.
Reports suggest that Japan is negotiating the purchase of hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles from the United States. This would mean that, for the first time since World War II, Japan would have the ability to attack targets inside China and North Korea.
I, Ronald Payne, am a journalist and author who dedicated his life to telling the stories that need to be said. I have over 7 years of experience as a reporter and editor, covering everything from politics to business to crime.