North Korea fired a suspected ballistic missile early on Wednesday, the first such test by Pyongyang of the new year, drawing condemnation from Japan and calls for talks from South Korea.
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the Japanese coast guard said the projectile “appears” to be a ballistic missile, with South Korea saying it landed in the East Sea.
The land-based missile was launched from the east coast of North Korea and flew about 500 km (310 miles) before landing in waters outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, Japan’s defence ministry said.
The JCS said South Korean and US intelligence authorities were trying to gather more information about the launch.
“Our military is maintaining readiness posture in preparation for a possible additional launch while closely monitoring the situation in close cooperation with the United States,” the JCS said in a statement.
The apparent ballistic missile test is the first since October and comes at a precarious time for the North Korean regime.
The country is battling food shortages and an economic crisis stemming from the long closure of its border with China during the coronavirus pandemic, while there are no signs of a resurrection of long-stalled nuclear talks with Washington.
Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, condemned the launch. “We find it truly regrettable that North Korea has continued to fire missiles from last year,” he told reporters.
Kishida said other details were not immediately available, including where the suspected missile landed and whether it had caused any damage. He said he had ordered officials to confirm the safety of ships and planes in the area where the suspected missile likely flew and fell.
South Korea’s National Security Council convened an emergency meeting, expressing concern that the launch “came at a time when internal and external stability is extremely important” and calling on North Korea to return to talks on dismantling its nuclear arsenal.
While recent North Korean test launches have featured two or more missiles, Wednesday’s test appears to have involved a single projectile.
The regime has tested multiple missiles in recent years, despite UN security council resolutions banning all missile and nuclear tests, and sanctions designed to weaken its ability to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Its arsenal is believed to include long-range missiles capable of striking parts of the US mainland, while last year the North claimed it had successfully tested a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile; a long-range cruise missile; a train-launched weapon; and what it described as a hypersonic warhead.
North Korea has not tested an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017, apparently to avoid inviting further sanctions, but appears determined to apply pressure on Washington with launches of smaller missiles.
In addition, the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, did not publicly appear at any missile tests or military drills last year – the first time he has been absent during his decade in power.
The latest test comes as North Korea remains silent on US appeals for talks.
At a key meeting of the North’s ruling party last week, Kim – who has overseen rapid progress in military technology – vowed to continue to bolster its military capabilities but did not refer to the US.
The two countries have not has held denuclearisation talks since the collapse in 2019 of the dialogue between Kim and the then US president, Donald Trump.
Under Joe Biden, the US has repeatedly said it is willing to meet North Korean representatives without preconditions, but insists it will not give up on denuclearisation.
But Pyongyang has so far dismissed the offer, accusing Washington of pursuing “hostile” policies, including joint military drills with the South it regards as rehearsals for an invasion.
“Rather than expressing willingness for denuclearisation talks or interest in an end-of-war declaration, North Korea is signalling that neither the Omicron variant nor domestic food shortages will stop its aggressive missile development,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
According to a statement released on Tuesday night, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Lee Sun Jin, to express their “ironclad commitment to the US-Republic of Korea alliance” while also discussing military response options.
Japan’s foreign minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, and its defence minister, Nobuo Kishi, will hold talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin via video link on Friday, the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Discussions will centre on the overall security situation faced by the allies as well as those concerning “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” it added.
In a report released last month, the US government’s Congressional Research Service concluded that North Korea was continuing to advance its nuclear weapons and missile programmes despite UN sanctions and diplomatic efforts.
“Recent ballistic missile tests and military parades suggest that North Korea is continuing to build a nuclear war-fighting capability designed to evade regional ballistic missile defences,” the report said.