North Korea has ramped up missile tests since Kim Jong Un became leader 10 years ago.
North Korea launched two suspected ballistic missiles into the sea off its eastern coast, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide said on Thursday, in a launch confirmed by the South and the United States, which is in the midst of a review of its policy towards the reclusive state.
North Korea is banned from developing ballistic missiles under United Nations Security Council resolutions and the launch adds a new challenge to US President Joe Biden’s efforts to engage with Pyongyang.
Japan’s Suga said the two missiles fell into the sea outside Japanese waters.
“The first launch in just less than a year represents a threat to peace and stability in Japan and the region and violates UN resolutions,” Suga said in comments aired by Japan’s public broadcaster NHK.
Japan lodged a formal protest about the launches through its embassy in China.
The missile launch took place only days after North Korea fired suspected cruise missiles.
“With its return to testing different types of missiles, Pyongyang is flirting with the limits of what it can get away with under UN Security Council resolutions,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international relations at Ewha University in Seoul told Reuters news agency.
“The Moon government has doubled down on peace building engagement and the Biden administration is looking to complete a policy review before taking any major moves. Strategists in Tokyo worry that North Korea is taking provocative actions to undermine cooperation among Japan, South Korea and the United States. The three countries are trying to get on the same page about deterrence, sanctions and engagement.”
Our most likely options at this point are the KN-23, KN-24 or the new SRBM. pic.twitter.com/xDozIRffq3
— Dr. Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) March 25, 2021
Twofer suggests an operational test/exercise—perhaps involving one of the Ri Pyong Chol specials (KN23/KN24/KN25). Also what one would expect in March. https://t.co/XsOjtbMakG
— Ankit Panda (@nktpnd) March 24, 2021
US officials confirmed to Reuters that Thursday morning’s test had taken place but did not offer details. In a statement, the US military’s Pacific Command said the launches highlighted the threat posed to North Korea’s neighbours by its illicit weapons programme.
Japan said North Korea fired one ballistic missile at 7.04am (22:04 GMT) and a second at 7.23am towards the east.
Each flew for about 420 kilometres (261 miles) and 430km (267 miles), respectively, before falling into the sea, it said.
The Japanese coastguard also warned ships against coming close to any fallen objects and advised them to provide information on any debris discovered to the authorities.
Suga said he would “thoroughly discuss” the issue of North Korea when he visits Washington, DC next month.
Following Thursday’s launches, China and Russia stressed the need for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.
After a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong in Seoul, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on “all related countries need to abandon arms race and escalation of military activities of any form”.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula was the goal of all mankind.
“We call on the relevant sides to meet each other halfway and continue to maintain the de-escalation situation to advance political settlement and work for lasting peace and security on the peninsula,” she said.
Pyongyang has made rapid progress in its weapons’ capabilities under leader Kim Jong Un, but has not tested a nuclear weapon or its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) since 2017, a year before an unprecedented summit between leader Kim Jong Un and former US President Donald Trump.
Thursday’s launches follow reports that Pyongyang tested two short-range missiles – suspected to be cruise missiles – over the weekend after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrapped up their first visit to Northeast Asia.
The Biden administration, which is reviewing its US policy on North Korea, played down those launches, saying the US remained open to negotiations with Pyongyang.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Seoul, said a ballistic missile launch would be harder to ignore.
“This is a significant development,” he said. “Apart from March last year, North Korea has largely avoided such provocative tests since denuclearisation talks broke down. It has returned to developing its arsenal but it has mostly been carrying out missiles that are not banned under UN resolutions as these tests are.”
The US and South Korea are analysing the data of the launch for additional information, the JCS said in a statement, with the presidential Blue House convening an emergency meeting of the national security council to discuss the launches.
The US administration’s North Korea policy review is in its “final stages” and the national security advisers of Japan and South Korea are expected in the US next week to discuss it, senior US officials said on Wednesday.