North Korea fired what appeared to be a submarine-designed ballistic missile, testing the tolerance of US President Donald Trump with weapons tests conducted by dictator Kim Jong-un. A few hours earlier, both sides had agreed to restart nuclear negotiations.
The South Korean military said the missile was fired near the Wonsan area in eastern North Korea shortly after 7 am on Wednesday (2). The projectile flew 910 kilometers in space before falling into the sea. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the missile may have split during the flight, with at least one piece falling in Japan's exclusive economic zone near the southwestern city of Shimane.
"The launch of this type of ballistic missile is a violation of UN resolutions," Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in an emergency interview. "Japan strongly protests and condemns the action."
The South Korean Ministry of Defense said it could not confirm whether the missile was launched at sea or from a land location.
The missile was the first long-range weapon the Kim Jong-un regime has tested since its last intercontinental ballistic missile test in November 2017, a move that could increase its bargaining leverage. So far, the US president has ignored a recent flood of shorter-range missile launches.
"North Korea is always trying to push the boundaries of what the international community will accept as much as it can," said Mintaro Oba, a former US diplomat who has worked on Korean Peninsula issues. "Scheduling launches at times when the United States is less likely to object will certainly accomplish that goal."
On Wednesday, the State Department urged North Korea to "refrain from provocations", comply with UN Security Council resolutions, engage in negotiations and work towards denuclearization on the Korean peninsula.
20 missiles tested
The test comes after former Homeland Security advisor John Bolton, target of Pyongyang's wrath while in the Trump administration, said the US cannot "simply pretend" that North Korea is making progress on denuclearization, adding that Kim never will give up its nuclear stock without further pressure.
The talks announced this week were the first sign of approach since Kim and Trump met at the North Korean border on June 30. Both sides have made little progress since agreeing last year to "work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" as Kim seeks greater relief from sanctions than the US is prepared to offer.
Pyongyang has repeatedly criticized Seoul for accepting high-tech US weapons, such as F-35 stealth fighters. The advanced fifth-generation fighter made its public debut in the country on Tuesday.
Kim has fired at least 20 missiles in 11 different military tests since ending the test freeze in May. Launches included explosions from several rocket launchers and a new short-range ballistic missile known as the KN-23, which analysts say is capable of carrying nuclear warheads, could hit all of South Korea and was designed to evade the shields of US missiles.
The launch of a submarine missile could demonstrate Kim's progress toward a two-pronged nuclear deterrent capable of rapid attacks on the US and its allies, from mobile land launchers to hard-to-track submarines. If confirmed, Wednesday's launch would have been the first time the regime fired a missile specifically designed for deployment at sea since 2016.
South Korea said the missile tested on Wednesday could be from the Pukguksong submarine-launched weapons group with a range of over 1,000 kilometers. David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that based on the details of the flight, the missile could have a maximum range of about 1,900 kilometers.
The little information available suggests that this could be a new solid fuel missile known as the Pukguksong-3, according to Ankit Panda, an adjunct member of the Defense Posture Project for the Federation of American Scientists.
The test comes about two months after Kim inspected a new submarine that he said would soon be deployed in the waters between his country and Japan, although weapons experts said the submarine was not yet ready for use.
"North Korea has released images of a new submarine in recent weeks and, of course, is interested in creating the most deterrent nuclear apparatus possible," said Scott Harold, political scientist at RAND Corp, an American think tank. "Nothing here suggests they are interested in enforcing the sanctions regime or preparing to negotiate their strategic capabilities."