Japan has lodged a “strong protest” and warned of “grave threats” to its security after three of four ballistic missiles launched by North Korea on Monday morning landed in waters within 300-350 km of its coast.
South Korea’s defence ministry said it had yet to identify the type of missiles involved, but the country’s Yonhap news agency cited an unnamed official as saying that the possibility that at least one of them was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) had not been ruled out.
A unnamed US official later told Reuters that the US saw no indications that an ICBM had been tested.
South Korea’s military said the North had fired the unidentified projectiles shortly after 7:30am local time from the Tongchang-ri region near its border with China. The area is home to the North’s Seohae satellite station, where it has conducted banned long-range rocket launches in recent years.
“The latest launches of ballistic missiles clearly demonstrate evidence of a new threat from North Korea,” the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said. “The launches are clearly in violation of (UN) security council resolutions. It is an extremely dangerous action,” he added.
The missiles launched on Monday flew about 1,000 km (620 miles) before landing in the Sea of Japan – known as the East Sea in Korea – with three landing in Japan’s “exclusive economic zone”. A fourth splashed down just outside the EEZ, reports said.
Three of the missiles landed 300-350 km from the Oga peninsula in Japan’s Akita prefecture, according to the country’s defence minister, Tomomi Inada.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, called the latest missile launch a “grave threat to national security” but added that there were no immediate reports of damage to ships or aircraft in the area.
“South Korea and the United States are conducting a close-up analysis, regarding further information,” South Korea’s military said in a statement.
The country’s acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, convened a national security meeting, the presidential office said. Seoul said its armed forces were “closely monitoring military activity north of the countries’ heavily armed border for any signs of further provocations.
The US also condemned the launch, vowing that Washington was ready to “use the full range of capabilities at our disposal against this growing threat.”
“The United States strongly condemns the DPRK’s ballistic missile launches tonight, which violate UN Security Council Resolutions explicitly prohibiting North Korea’s launches using ballistic missile technology,” the State Department’s acting spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
Toner added: “We remain prepared – and will continue to take steps to increase our readiness – to defend ourselves and our allies from attack, and are prepared to use the full range of capabilities at our disposal against this growing threat.”
North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and 20 missile launches last year – a sign, say experts, that the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is redoubling efforts to develop a nuclear arsenal capable of deterring “hostility” from the US and South Korea.
In his New Year’s address, Kim claimed that the North was preparing to test fire an ICBM – a development that would dramatically raise the diplomatic and security stakes for Washington.
The US defence secretary, James Mattis, warned last month that any nuclear attack on the US or its allies in the Asia-Pacific would trigger an “effective and overwhelming” response.
North Korea has carried out five nuclear tests and dozens of missile launches despite six rounds of UN sanctions that began after Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006.
Concern is growing that with every new test, North Korea is edging towards developing a fully functioning ICBM that, in theory, could strike the US mainland.
Washington has yet to respond to the latest missile launch. Trump has described North Korea as a “big, big problem” and vowed to deal with the issue “very strongly”.
His administration has yet to publicly articulate its policy towards North Korea beyond voicing support for its alliances with Japan and South Korea, home to tens of thousands of US troops.
Monday’s tests were the second North Korea has conducted test launches of its missiles since Donald Trump became president. Early last month, it test-launched a new intermediate-rang missile – known as the Pukguksong-2, into the sea to coincide with Trump’s summit with Abe at his Florida estate.
“Not only Pukguksong-2 but newer independent strategic weapons will fly high vigorously in the sky off the ground as long as the United States and the puppet regime are going ahead with their nuclear threat to us and an exercise for invasion war against the North,” North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ party, said in a commentary last week.
Monday’s launches are believed to be in protest at the start last week of huge joint military exercises involving South Korea and the US that North Korea regards as a rehearsal for an invasion. Pyongyang threatened to take “strong retaliatory measures” after the annual military drills began last Wednesday, but did not elaborate.
The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, ordered troops to “set up thorough countermeasures of a merciless strike against the enemy’s sudden air assault”, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.
South Korea and the US insist that the Foal Eagle exercises, which will end in late April, are designed to test the allies’ preparedness for a serious military provocation from North Korea.
The launches could also be designed to communicate Pyongyang’s anger towards China, coming as Xi Jinping attended the 10-day annual national people’s congress in Beijing.
While China is the North’s only main ally and biggest donor and trading partner, Beijing has not attempted to hide its opposition to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
Last month, China announced a suspension of all coal imports from North Korea until the end of the year, depriving Pyongyang of an important source of foreign currency.
The unidentified projectile was launched at 7:36 am local time on Monday from North Korea’s northwest and flew across the country before falling into the sea, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said, citing South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Tongchang-ri is where North Korea fired a long-range rocket last year that put an object into orbit. The launch was condemned by the UN for violating resolutions that ban the use of missile technology.