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North Korea fired a ballistic missile in the early hours of Wednesday morning local time, the US said, defying the warnings of President Donald Trump and ratcheting up tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.

The Pentagon said on Tuesday that it was “probable” North Korea had fired an intercontinental ballistic missile at 1:17pm Washington time, according to its initial assessment.

It said the missile, which was launched from Sain Ni, North Korea, travelled about 1,000km before landing in the Sea of Japan.

“It went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken,” Jim Mattis, US defence secretary, told reporters. “It’s a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that could threaten everywhere in the world basically.”

He added: “In response the South Koreans have fired some pinpoint missiles out into the water to make certain North Korea understands that they could be taken on under fire by our ally.”

A state department official said the agency was “aware of reports of a North Korean missile” and that it would be providing additional information when it became available.

The launch is North Korea’s first since September 15 and comes amid a history of hostile rhetoric between Mr Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In September, Mr Trump warned in a UN speech that the US would have “no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” if Pyongyang threatened the US or one of its allies.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches a missile launch © Reuters

Mr Trump has begun referring to Mr Kim as “Rocket Man” and suggesting that the North Korean leader is “short and fat”, while Mr Kim has referred to Mr Trump as a “lunatic old man”.

Wednesday’s launch was first reported by Yonhap news agency and later confirmed by South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff, which said that Pyongyang had launched “an unidentified ballistic missile eastward” before dawn on Wednesday.

Japanese officials had earlier suggested a launch could be imminent.

Speaking at the White House on Tuesday, Mr Trump said the launch would not change his administration’s approach to North Korea. 

“We will take care of it,” Mr Trump told reporters. “It is a situation that we will handle.”

It is the first missile launch since Mr Trump travelled to Japan and South Korea last month. 

Asked by reporters if the US was running out of options on North Korea, Senator Lindsey Graham replied: “Not yet, but we’re getting close.”

Secretary of state Rex Tillerson said the US was still hoping to avoid a military confrontation with North Korea.

“Diplomatic options remain viable and open for now,” Mr Tillerson said in a statement. “The United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to de-nuclearisation and to ending belligerent actions by North Korea.”

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