North Korea’s reclusive Communist regime on Wednesday fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile that landed in Japanese waters, hours before the foreign ministers of China, South Korea and Japan met in Tokyo for trilateral talks.
The surprise launch of the missile from an underwater platform coincided with the beginning of a bilateral wargame by South Korea and the US and revealed – for the first time – that North Korea possesses advanced missile technology.
The isolated Communist country conducted its fourth nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch in February, triggering a fresh round of UN sanctions. Wednesday’s launch comes within weeks of South Korea allowing the US to deploy the North Korea-focussed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system on its soil
Reports from Seoul said the ballistic missile was fired at 5:30 am local time from “near the coastal city of Sinpo, where a submarine base is located”.
“The projectile reached Japan's air defence identification zone for the first time,” chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga was quoted as saying in Tokyo by an agency report.
Seoul and Tokyo were prompt in denouncing the missile launch, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling it “unforgivable”.
The reaction from Beijing, which is Pyongyang's main ally but has joined past UN Security Council resolutions against North Korea, was guarded.
“China opposes North Korea's nuclear missile programme as well as any words or deeds that cause tension on the Korean peninsula,” foreign minister Wang Yi said.
But a commentary published by the official Xinhua news agency said South Korea and the US were to be blamed for Pyongyang’s decision to fire the missile.
“Under the pressure of South Korea-US military drill and the widely disputed THAAD deployment, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) reportedly fired a ballistic missile early Wednesday, sending a strong signal that Washington and its allies are risking turning the region into a powder keg,” the commentary argued.
It added: “In fact, the US and South Korea have been warned in advance by the north. Calling the South Korea-US exercises the ‘most undisguised physical measure and provocative action’, the DPRK has vowed to ‘foil all hostile acts and threat of aggression and provocation with the Korean-style nuclear deterrence.’”
Japan was clear in its reaction to the missile launch.
“This poses a grave threat to Japan’s security, and is an unforgivable act that damages regional peace and stability markedly,” Abe told reporters in Tokyo. He said Japan had lodged a protest with North Korea.
South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement it strongly denounces the missile launch, which was in “violation of UN Security Council resolutions and in defiance of repeated warnings from the international community”.