North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile into Japan’s exclusive economic zone on Thursday, breaking a self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile tests and raising tensions in East Asia.
South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said the missile reached an altitude of more than 6,000km and flew for about 71 minutes to a range of 1,080km from its launch site near Pyongyang’s international airport.
Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s outgoing president, “strongly condemned” Thursday’s launch, describing North Korea’s long-range missile testing as a “serious threat”.
Fumio Kishida, Japan’s prime minister, described the test as an “unacceptable act of violence”. He said North Korea’s repeated launch of ballistic missiles “threatens the peace and security of our country, the region and the international community”.
The projectile landed in the Sea of Japan within the Japanese exclusive economic zone 170km west of the northern prefecture of Aomori, according to the Japanese coastguard. The sea is known in Korea as the East Sea.
It was North Korea’s first test of a long-range ballistic missile potentially capable of reaching the US mainland since 2017 — a period of confrontation with the US during which then-president Donald Trump threatened “fire and fury” on the East Asian country.
Christopher Green, senior consultant for the International Crisis Group, said deteriorating US relations with Russia and China had probably emboldened Pyongyang and that the region was heading into “choppy waters”.
“Although UN resolutions forbid all kinds of ballistic missile tests, the truth is that the only ones that make the US and its allies sit up and take notice are long-range,” Green said.
Thursday’s launch, North Korea’s 12th missile test this year, demonstrates the progress of its missile development programme and follows two tests of ICBM-related rocket systems in February and early March. Those tests were described by US officials as a “serious escalation” amid signs that Pyongyang was testing elements of a new system ahead of a possible long-range missile test.
Thursday’s missile test came as Admiral John Aquilino, the top US commander in the Indo-Pacific region, was visiting Australia as part of the US effort to work even more closely with allies to tackle threats from China and North Korea.
“The United States condemns these actions and calls on the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] to refrain from further destabilising acts,” the US Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement.
“While we have assessed that this event does not pose an immediate threat to US personnel, territory, or that of our allies, we will continue to monitor the situation closely,” it added.
On Tuesday, the transition team of South Korea’s conservative president-elect, Yoon Suk-yeol, said Seoul was considering reviving a high-level US-South Korean military working group “based on recent military trends in North Korea”.
Analysts said that Thursday’s test could mark the start of a new period of confrontation after years of moribund diplomacy following the collapse in 2019 of a summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“North Korea wants to re-establish itself as a serious international issue following the failure of its diplomacy in 2018-19,” said Green at the International Crisis Group.
He added that, while there had been broad international consensus behind sanctions on Pyongyang after its 2017 ICBM test, collapsing US-Russia relations over Ukraine and Beijing’s intensifying competition with Washington meant North Korea now faced “little risk of punishment for this kind of test”.