North Korea fires long-range missile after warning of military drills
By Hyunsu Yim and Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile into the sea off the west coast of Japan on Saturday after warning of a strong response to upcoming military exercises by South Korea and the United States.
Japanese authorities said the missile crashed into waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone more than an hour after it was launched, suggesting the weapon was one of Pyongyang’s largest missiles.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kisihda said the missile appears to be of the ICBM class, referring to an intercontinental ballistic missile. He said at a briefing that Japan had strongly condemned the launch, calling it a threat to the international community.
Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said the missile appeared to have a range of more than 14,000 km (8,700 miles) – enough to reach the US mainland.
Tokyo said there were no immediate reports of damage to ships or planes.
In South Korea, which denounced the launch as “clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions,” joint chiefs of staff said the missile flew about 900 km (560 miles) before crashing into the sea.
North Korea’s first missile launch since Jan. 1 came after Pyongyang on Friday threatened an “unprecedentedly insistent, strong” response as South Korea and the United States prepare for annual military exercises to stave off the North’s mounting nuclear and missile threats.
After the launch on Saturday, South Korea’s National Security Council called a meeting and agreed to strengthen security cooperation with Washington and Japan.
To present a united front with South Korea and Japan, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described Saturday’s launch as a “provocative” act in remarks with his counterparts from the two countries.
“The result of these actions by North Korea is simply to further strengthen our work together, the alliance we share and our commitment to defending our partners and allies,” Blinken said on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
The White House said it was taking necessary measures to protect the US homeland and regional allies but the launch posed no immediate threat. The Group of Seven foreign ministers condemned the launch and called for a unified response from the international community.
ADVANCES IN SOLID MISSILES?
Nuclear-armed North Korea last year launched an unprecedented number of missiles, including ICBMs, that can strike anywhere in the United States as it resumed preparations for its first nuclear test since 2017.
Saturday’s rocket was fired from the Sunan area near Pyongyang, the South Korean military said. Sunan is the site of Pyongyang International Airport, where North Korea has conducted most of its recent ICBM tests.
North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs are banned under UN Security Council resolutions, but Pyongyang says its weapons development is necessary to counter “hostile policies” by Washington and its allies.
Allied nuclear exercises, the Deterrence Strategy Committee’s tabletop exercise, are scheduled for Wednesday at the Pentagon and will involve senior defense officials from both sides, the Seoul Defense Ministry said.
The two countries are also planning a series of expanded field exercises, including live firefighting exercises, in the coming weeks and months.
About 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, technically leaving the parties at war.
Pyongyang may have created a military unit tasked with operating new ICBMs in line with its recent military restructuring, state media video footage of a Feb. 9 parade suggests.
This parade featured more ICBMs than ever before, including a possible new solid fuel weapon that could help the North deploy its missiles more quickly in the event of war.
“North Korean missile launches are often tests for technology under development, and it will be remarkable if Pyongyang claims progress on a long-range solid-fuel missile,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul.
(Reporting by Hyunsu Yim and Josh SmithAdditional reporting by Steve Holland and Humeyra PamukEditing by William Mallard, Jason Neely, Helen Popper and Diane Craft)