North Korea has launched a long-range ballistic missile into the sea off Japan’s west coast after warning of a strong response to upcoming military exercises by South Korea and the United States.
Japanese authorities said the missile crashed into water in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on Saturday more than an hour after it was launched, suggesting the weapon is one of Pyongyang’s largest missiles.
“North Korea fires an unidentified ballistic missile [the] East Sea,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said, referring to the body of water also known as the Sea of Japan.
The joint chiefs of staff condemned the launch as “clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions” and said the missile flew about 900 km (560 miles) before crashing into the sea.
Japanese government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters North Korea had fired an “ICBM-class ballistic missile” eastward, referring to long-range ICBMs that Pyongyang has been increasingly testing.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the missile appeared to have landed “in Japan’s EEZ west of Hokkaido.”
“It is an escalating provocation against the international community as a whole, and we have of course protested vigorously,” he added.
Japanese officials said there were no immediate reports of damage to ships or planes.
South Korean officials, meanwhile, said the “suspected long-range missile” was launched from the Sunan area near Pyongyang. Sunan is the site of Pyongyang International Airport, where North Korea has conducted most of its recent ICBM testing.
After the launch on Saturday, South Korea’s National Security Council called a meeting and agreed to strengthen security cooperation with Washington and Japan.
The US Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement that US commitments to defend Japan and South Korea “remain ironclad”.
“While we have determined that this event poses no immediate threat to U.S. personnel, U.S. territory, or our allies, we continue to monitor the situation,” the statement added.
The White House strongly condemned the launch and said it would take whatever action is necessary to protect the US homeland and regional allies.
The launch “unnecessarily creates tension and risks destabilizing the security situation in the region,” Adrienne Watson, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said in a statement.
The launch came a day after North Korea’s foreign ministry threatened to take “unprecedentedly” strong action against South Korea after announcing planned military exercises.
Friday’s North Korean statement accused Washington and Seoul of planning more than 20 rounds of military exercises this year, including large-scale field exercises, and described their rivals as “the arch-criminals who are intentionally disrupting peace and stability in the region.”
The U.S. tabletop exercise, scheduled for Wednesday, would outline possible scenarios in which North Korea will use nuclear weapons and how to deal with them militarily, and formulate plans for crisis management, South Korea’s defense ministry said.
“With a focus on North Korea’s nuclear threat, both sides will hold in-depth talks on various measures to strengthen U.S. enhanced deterrence, including information sharing and consultation processes,” the ministry said in a statement.
Heo Tae-keun, South Korea’s deputy minister of national defense policy, told lawmakers on Friday that the two countries would hold joint field exercises in mid-March that would be larger than those in recent years. The drills are expected to include live fire drills.
The latest launch followed a record year for North Korean arms demonstrations, in which Pyongyang launched more than 70 ballistic missiles, including ICBMs with the potential range to reach the US mainland.
North Korea has also conducted several launches, which it described as simulated nuclear attacks on South Korean and US targets, while also passing legislation declaring the country an “irreversible” nuclear state.
Al Jazeera Defense Editor Alex Gatopoulos said these missiles are real weapons tests that are becoming more sophisticated.
“The rocket didn’t go that far, but it did fly extremely high – fourteen times higher than an ISS. It’s an effective weapon that a nuclear weapon can potentially deliver if they so choose.”
The increased activity from Pyongyang was met by increased joint military exercises by South Korea and key allies.
This followed a scaled-down phase amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a fruitless diplomatic offensive by former US President Donald Trump.
Around 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended in an armistice rather than a full peace treaty and technically left the countries still at war.
Saturday’s launch was the first to be spotted from North Korea since Jan. 1.
A missile fired from Pyongyang also reportedly landed in Japan’s economic zone last November.