SEOUL: An airplane crew flying over Japan saw North Korea’s missile as it plunged back through the atmosphere last week, their airline said on Monday, as South Korea and the US kicked off their largest ever joint air exercise.

Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific released a statement saying the crew of flight CX893 spotted “what is suspected to be the re-entry” of the missile as they flew from San Francisco to the southern Chinese city.

In a separate message to staff, Cathay general manager Mark Hoey said the crew described seeing the missile “blow up and fall apart”, the South China Morning Post reported.

Pyongyang sent tensions soaring on the Korean Peninsula five days ago when it announced it had successfully test fired a new ICBM, which it says brings the whole of the continental United States within range.

Analysts say it is unclear whether the missile survived re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere or could successfully deliver a warhead to its target — key technological hurdles for Pyongyang.

The isolated and impoverished North has staged six increasingly powerful atomic tests since 2006 — most recently in September — which have rattled Washington and its key regional allies South Korea and Japan.

On Monday the US and South Korea started their largest ever joint air exercise, an operation Pyongyang has labelled an “all-out provocation”.

The five-day Vigilant Ace drill involves 230 aircraft, including F-22 Raptor stealth jet fighters, and tens of thousands of troops, Seoul’s air force said.

Pyongyang over the weekend blasted the drill, accusing US President Donald Trump’s administration of “begging for nuclear war”. As tensions surged, US Senator Lindsey Graham, an influential Republican and foreign policy hawk, warned that the US was moving closer to “preemptive war” with the North.

“If there’s an underground nuclear test (by the North), then you need to get ready for a very serious response by the United States,” Graham told the CBS show “Face the Nation”.

In recent years Pyongyang has accelerated its drive to develop nuclear and missile technology capable of threatening the US, which it accuses of hostility.

“The preemption is becoming more likely as their technology matures,” Graham said.

His remarks echoed those of Trump’s National Security Advi­ser HR McMaster, who told a security forum on Saturday that the potential for war with the North “is increasing every day”.

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