North Korea on Wednesday successfully test-fired a submarine-launched missile that fell inside Japan’s air defence zone, fuelling tensions already raised to dangerous levels by ongoing South Korea-US military exercises.
A statement from South Korea’s military Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile, launched in the early morning from a submarine in the East Sea (Sea of Japan), flew around 500 kilometres (310 miles) -- a substantial improvement on similar tests in the past.
Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the missile breached his country’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and condemned what he called an “unforgivable, reckless act” and a grave threat to Japan’s security.
Earlier this month, North Korea fired a land-launched ballistic missile directly into Japanese-controlled waters for the first time, drawing an outraged response from Tokyo.
Wednesday’s test came just days after North Korea threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike against South Korean and US forces who kicked off their annual “Ulchi Freedom” military drill on Monday.
Seoul and Washington insist such exercises are purely defensive in nature, but Pyongyang views them as wilfully provocative.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff statement said that the North was clearly bent on escalating tensions with a launch that posed a “serious challenge” to security on the Korean peninsula, and represented a grave breach of UN resolutions.
“We will deal strongly and sternly with any provocation by the North,” it said.
Washington also condemned the test and warned Pyongyang against any further provocations.
“Our commitment to the defense of our allies, including the Republic of Korea and Japan, in the face of these threats, is ironclad,” said Pentagon spokesman Gary Ross.
The Ulchi Freedom drill plays out a scenario of full-scale invasion by the nuclear-armed North. It is largely computer-simulated but still involves around 50,000 Korean and 25,000 US soldiers.
The exercise always triggers a rise in tensions on the divided peninsula, and this year it coincides with particularly volatile cross-border relations following a series of high-profile defections.
Last week North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain, Thae Yong-Ho, defected to the South -- a rare and damaging loss of diplomatic face for Pyongyang and a major PR victory for Seoul.
In comments clearly aimed at riling Pyongyang, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said such high-ranking defections suggested “serious cracks” in supreme leader Kim Jong-Un’s regime.
Park also warned that North Korea may carry out “various terror attacks and provocations” in a show of strength aimed at building national unity and loyalty to Kim.
North Korea has conducted a number of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) tests -- most recently in April and July -- with varying degrees of success.
Previous flight distances have not exceeded 30 kilometres, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff statement acknowledged that Wednesday’s test showed a marked improvement.
The South Korean defence ministry has said the North could be able to deploy a working SLBM within three to four years.
A proven SLBM capability would take North Korea’s nuclear strike threat to a new level, allowing deployment far beyond the Korean peninsula and the potential to retaliate in the event of a nuclear attack.
Current UN resolutions prohibit North Korea from any test of ballistic missile technology, but Pyongyang has continued to carry out numerous launches following its fourth nuclear test in January.
South Korea responded by agreeing to deploy a sophisticated US anti-missile system -- a move that has seriously strained relations with North Korea’s main diplomatic ally, China.