North Korea fires ballistic missile

North Korea on Tuesday fired what has been initially assessed by the Defense Department to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) — the first such launch in more than two months.

The missile was fired at dawn, local time, on Wednesday from an area north of Pyongyang and flew east before splashing down in the Sea of Japan.

The missile posed no threat to North America or any U.S. territories or allies, the Pentagon said, but added that it remains "prepared to defend ourselves and our allies from any attack or provocation."

But Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital | Mattis, Tillerson reportedly opposed move | Pentagon admits 2,000 US troops are in Syria | Trump calls on Saudis to 'immediately' lift Yemen blockade Trump has yet to name ambassadors to key nations in Mideast Mattis, Tillerson warned Trump of security concerns in Israel embassy move MORE told reporters after the launch that the ICBM went "higher frankly than any previous shots" North Korea has yet taken — a troubling signal that Pyongyang continues to make advances in its weapons development program. 

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President Trump expressed confidence shortly following the launch, saying “it’s a situation we will handle.”

"We will take care of it," Trump told reporters at the White House.

South Korea fired pinpoint missiles into the water in response to the launch, "to make certain North Korea understands that they could be taken under fire by our ally," Mattis said. 

Trump said the launch would not alter the administration's strategy to rein in the rogue nation and Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonOvernight Defense: Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital | Mattis, Tillerson reportedly opposed move | Pentagon admits 2,000 US troops are in Syria | Trump calls on Saudis to 'immediately' lift Yemen blockade Trump has yet to name ambassadors to key nations in Mideast Mattis, Tillerson warned Trump of security concerns in Israel embassy move MORE, while condemning the launch, said diplomatic options "remain viable and open, for now."

But the launch, which directly defies Trump's demands that the North Koreans curtail a burgeoning nuclear program, is likely to add tension to an already strained stand-off with the United States and its allies in the region. 

It comes less than two weeks after Trump's return from Asia — where he warned Pyongyang “do not try us” by escalating nuclear provocations — and just a week after he announced that the U.S. designated the country as a state sponsor of terror. 

The president has threatened to rain "fire and fury" on Pyongyang if it continues to threaten the U.S. or its allies.

Prior to Tuesday, North Korea had not launched a missile since Sept. 15, when it fired a rocket that passed over Japan's Hokkaido Island. 

Before September, it had launched missiles at a rate of two or three per month since April. 

There were some signals that Pyongyang could be preparing another ballistic missile launch. A Japanese government source told Reuters on Tuesday that it had detected radio signals suggesting such a launch could be imminent. 

Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, told reporters earlier this month that the U.S. is "running out of time” to halt North Korea’s bid for nuclear missiles capable of reaching the mainland of the United States.

The designation as a state sponsor of terror, designed to further isolate North Korea for its pursuit of nuclear weapons, allows the U.S. to cut off foreign assistance, weapons sales, commercial exports and financial transactions with Pyongyang.

Tillerson conceded the “practical effects may be limited” because Pyongyang is already heavily sanctioned by the U.S. government — although he called the move "very symbolic" of U.S. efforts to pressure North Korean leader Kim Jon Un into dropping his nuclear program. 

The president, in a United Nations speech in September, warned that he would have no choice but to "totally destroy North Korea" if it continued with its weapons program. 

The two nations have traded insults since, with the North Korean leader responding by calling Trump a "mentally deranged dotard." 

But the missile launches temporarily ceased.

The pause, especially in a year that has seen increasingly daring weapons tests including North Korea’s sixth underground nuclear test, raised hopes that a diplomatic solution might be possible, even as Washington has applied what it calls "maximum pressure and sanctions" to bring Pyongyang to heel.

“We still hope for diplomacy," Tillerson told reporters last week at the White House. "This is only going to get worse until you’re ready to come and talk.”

Kim has said his country will continue to conduct more tests to advance its capability to the point that it can deliver a nuclear warhead on its ICMBs. 

"The bottom line is it is a continual effort to build a ballistic missile threat that endangers world peace, regional peace and certainly the United States," Mattis said Tuesday. 

— Jordan Fabian contributed. Last updated at 4:21 p.m.