North Korea launched a short-range ballistic missile toward the sea on Sunday, its neighbors said, stepping up testing activities in response to ongoing US-South Korean military drills, which it sees as an invasion rehearsal.
North Korea has shown determination not to back down by continuing missile tests despite the US-South Korea drills, the largest of its kind in years. But many experts say the tests are also part of North Korea’s larger objective of expanding its arsenal, gaining international recognition as a nuclear state and evading international sanctions.
According to South Korean and Japanese assessments, the missile, launched from the North’s northwestern Tongchangri region, flew across the country before landing in waters off its east coast. He said the missile had a range of about 500 miles, a range that suggests the weapon could be targeting South Korea.
The chief nuclear envoys of South Korea, Japan and the US discussed the launch by phone and strongly condemned it as a provocation threatening peace on the Korean Peninsula and the region. They agreed to strengthen their coordination to issue a firm international response to the North’s actions, according to Seoul’s foreign ministry.
South Korea’s military said it would go ahead with the rest of joint exercises with the US and be prepared to respond “overwhelmingly” to any provocation by North Korea. As part of exercises, the US flew at least one long-range B-1B bomber for joint air training with South Korean warplanes on Sunday, according to South Korea’s defense ministry.
North Korea is highly sensitive to the deployment of B-1Bs, which are capable of carrying a large conventional weapons payload. It responded to February flights of B-1Bs by test-launching missiles whose range showed they could reach some military airbases in South Korea.
Japanese Vice Defense Minister Toshiro Inoue said the missile landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone and there were no reports of damage to ships or aircraft in the area. He said the missile likely showed an erratic trajectory, highly maneuverable by North Korea, a possible reference to the nuclear-capable KN-23 missile that was based on Russia’s Iskander missile.
The US Indo-Pacific Command said the latest launch does not pose an immediate threat to US territory or its allies. But it said the North’s recent launches “highlight the destabilizing effect of its illegal” weapons programs and that US security commitments to South Korea and Japan remain “iron”.
The launch was North Korea’s third round of weapons tests since the US and South Korean militaries began joint military drills last Monday. The drills, which include computer simulations and field exercises, will continue till Thursday. The field exercise is the largest of its kind since 2018.
Among the weapons North Korea has tested recently is its longest-range Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile, which is designed to strike the US mainland. The North’s state media quoted leader Kim Jong Un as saying the ICBM launch was intended to “instill fear in the enemy”.
North Korea has missiles that keep Japan within striking distance. Last October, North Korea fired a medium-range missile over northern Japan, forcing communities there to issue evacuation alerts and halt trains.
Following Sunday’s launch, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ordered a quick response, including working closely with South Korea and the US, according to Japanese Deputy Defense Minister Inoue.
A day before the drills began, North Korea also fired cruise missiles from a submarine. The North’s state media said the submarine-launched missile was a demonstration of its resolve to respond with “tremendously powerful” force to the rapid military maneuvers by “US imperialists and South Korean puppet forces”.