The missile launched early Tuesday appeared to be a Hwasong-12, the intermediate-range ballistic missile that North Korea has been threatening to shoot into the waters near the U.S. territory of Guam.
But North Korea didn't shoot it southeast toward Guam. Instead, it lobbed the missile in a northeasterly direction, over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean.
This enabled it to send a strong political signal and to glean valuable technical data on its rapidly advancing missile program, without overtly crossing a "red line" and spurring the United States into action, analysts said.
Taro Kono, Japan's foreign minister, acknowledged as much. "If North Korea had launched the missile to the south, the U.S. might have viewed it as a considerable provocation and responded accordingly," Kono told reporters after the launch, as the government reeled.
The launch also seemed designed to drive a wedge between North Korea's neighbors.
In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called it "an unprecedented, grave and serious threat." Abe wants to beef up Japan's military capabilities, and missile launches like this provide ammunition for his controversial cause.
Meanwhile, South Korea's liberal president Moon Jae-in, who has promoted engagement with Pyongyang, immediately denounced the launch and sent his fighter jets to drop bombs on a shooting range near the border with North Korea, a show of South Korean might.
Both reactions will have rattled Beijing, which Tuesday called on all sides to take a step back. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying characterized the North Korea situation as "at a tipping point, approaching a crisis." She repeated China's call for talks between North Korea and the United States.
China doesn't want Japan increasing its military capabilities and rivaling it in the region, and it doesn't want South Korea sticking to its agreement to host an American antimissile battery that it fears could be used to keep China in check.
The divisions between China and its neighbors could weaken Beijing's already-questionable resolve to implement the sanctions imposed by the international community on North Korea in the wake of previous missile and nuclear tests.
But most of all, analysts say, Kim Jong Un is showing that he won't be cowed by President Donald Trump's tough talk.
"This is not the action of a country that is interested in showing restraint or in creating a glide-path to dialogue, at least not on our terms," said James Schoff, an expert on East Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
This is not the first time that North Korea has shot a missile over Japan. It fired rockets over the Japanese mainland in 1998 and 2009 - although it described them as satellite launch vehicles and gave Japan advance warning in the second case - and it has shot missiles close to the southern island chain of Okinawa as recently as last year.
But Tuesday's missile launch represented a bold new move, analysts said.
"This was the first missile test that was designed for military purposes," said Narushige Michishita, an expert on Korean Peninsula security issues at the Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. "From a military point of view, they have demonstrated an ability to use a very mobile, agile missile against targets anywhere in Japan. They have demonstrated a direct threat."
North Korea first displayed the Hwasong-12, an intermediate range missile that can theoretically travel 3,000 miles, in at a huge military parade in Pyongyang in April. But it didn't successfully fire it until mid-May, when it launched it almost straight up so it would splash down in the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan and avoid flying over Japan.
It was the longest-range missile North Korea had launched and Kim declared it made North Korea "an invincible socialist fortress, which any formidable enemy cannot dare to provoke."
The Hwasong-12 was considered a precursor to an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the mainland United States and, sure enough, North Korea launched that longer-range missile, which it called the Hwasong-14, twice in July.
With tensions between Pyongyang and Washington running high, the Kim regime then threatened to "envelop" the U.S. territory of Guam with four Hwasong-12 missiles. But as North Korea's self-imposed deadline approached, Kim said he would watch "the Yankees" a little longer before deciding to go ahead.
Tuesday's launch gave North Korea a chance to test its technology as well as push the boundaries, said Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"There is a technical imperative for conducting this test. They want to be able to look at reentry dynamics and how it performs on a more normal trajectory," said Elleman, noting, however, that North Korea would have had to send out boats to receive telemetric signals from a missile traveling so far. Japan said it had not detected any suspicious ships in the area.
But the missile test also helps North Korea achieve other objectives.
"In a way, it's kind of a trial balloon. If we overfly Japan, what happens? If the blowback isn't too significant, they will feel more comfortable with launching a Hwasong-14 to a good distance to validate its performance on a normal trajectory," Elleman said.
For now, though, the provocative launch does not rise to the level of requiring a military response, analysts say. It will, however, help Abe press his case to increase Japan's defenses and possibly its offensive capability.
Japan's Patriot Advanced Capability-3 surface-to-air missiles were unable to intercept the North Korean rocket. The PAC-3 system has a range of about 20 miles and shoot down the missile as it's on the way down, and Tuesday's missile landed 700 miles east of Hokkaido.
U.S. Forces Japan declined to comment on why it did not attempt to shoot down the missile.
Abe's government has been pushing for new American missile defense systems including the Aegis Ashore, which would theoretically have been able to shoot down Tuesday's provocation. "This helps Abe make his case for strengthening his defense capabilities," said Michishita in Tokyo.
Abe's government has stepped up emergency response systems as North Korea has been firing missiles this year, partly to ensure safety but also, many suspect, to bolster support for his military expansion plans.
After alerts went out on cellphones and sirens blared on Tuesday morning, people in Hokkaido certainly felt that the threat was real.
"This is not an ordinary situation," said Yasunori Oishi, principal of an elementary school in Erimo, the closest Japanese town to the missile's landing point. "I feel like all Japan is now within North Korean missile range and it's scary."
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