North Korea has fired a ballistic missile towards its eastern seas, ahead of planned military drills by South Korea and the United States.
South Korea’s military said Sunday’s weapon test involved a single, short-range ballistic missile fired from near the Taechon area of North Pyongyang Province just before 7am (22:00 GMT on Saturday).
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It did not immediately release further specifics about the weapon, including what type of missile it was or how far it flew.
Japanese defence minister Yasukazu Hamada said Japan estimated it reached maximum altitude at 50 kilometres (31 miles) and may have flown on an irregular trajectory.
Hamada said it fell outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone and there were no reports of problems with shipping or air traffic.
Many of the short-range missiles tested by North Korea in recent years have been designed to evade missile defences by manoeuvring during flight and flying on a lower, “depressed” trajectory, experts have said.
“If you include launches of cruise missiles, this is the nineteenth launch, which is an unprecedented pace,” Hamada said. “North Korea’s action represents a threat to the peace and security of our country, the region and the international community and to do this as the Ukraine invasion unfolds is unforgivable.”
He added that Japan had delivered a protest through North Korea’s embassy in Beijing.
The launch comes after the arrival of the nuclear-powered American aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in South Korea to participate in joint drills with South Korean forces, and ahead of a planned visit to Seoul this week by US Vice President Kamala Harris.
It was the first time North Korea carried out such a launch after firing eight short-range ballistic missiles in one day in early June, which led the US to call for more sanctions for violating United Nations Security Council resolutions.
North Korea rejects UN resolutions as an infringement of its sovereign right to self-defence and space exploration, and has criticised previous joint drills by the US and South Korea as proof of their hostile policies.
The drills have also been criticised by Russia and China, which have called on all sides not to take steps that raise tensions in the region and have called for an easing of sanctions.
After North Korea conducted an unprecedented number of missile tests earlier this year, including of intercontinental ballistic missiles for the first time since 2017, South Korea and the US said they would boost joint drills and military displays of power to deter Pyongyang.
“Defence exercises are not going to prevent North Korean missile tests,” Leif-Eric Easley, an international affairs professor at Ewha University in Seoul, told Reuters news agency.
But US-South Korea security cooperation helps to deter a North Korean attack and counter Pyongyang’s coercion and the allies should not let provocations stop them from conducting military training and exchanges needed to maintain the alliance, he added.
On Saturday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that North Korea might also be preparing to test a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), citing South Korea’s military.
A North-Korea focused think-tank, 38North, also said last week that Pyongyang was possibly preparing to launch a new submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles. The group said its analysis of commercial satellite imagery shows multiple barges and other vessels gathered at the eastern port of Sinpo, where the country has a major shipyard building submarines.
North Korea has been working to acquire the ability to fire nuclear-armed missiles from submarines, which would, in theory, bolster its deterrent as they would ensure retaliation after absorbing a nuclear attack on land.
Ballistic missile submarines would also add a new maritime threat to North Korea’s growing collection of solid-fuel weapons fired from land vehicles, which are being developed with an apparent aim to overwhelm missile defence systems in South Korea and Japan.
Still, experts say the heavily sanctioned nation would need considerably more time, resources and major technological improvements to build at least several submarines that could travel quietly in seas and reliably execute attacks.