North Korea test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile in a display of military might Thursday, just hours before the leaders of South Korea and Japan were to meet at a Tokyo summit expected to be overshadowed by North Korean nuclear threats.
The launch, the North’s first ICBM test in a month and third weapons testing this week, also comes as South Korean and U.S. troops continue joint military exercises that Pyongyang considers a rehearsal to invade.
South Korea’s military said the North Korean ICBM flew toward the Korean Peninsula’s eastern waters after being launched from North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, around 7:10 a.m. The statement said South Korea’s military is maintaining readiness in close coordination with the United States.
The Sunan neighborhood is the site of Pyongyang’s international airport and has emerged as a major testing site where the North launched most of its ICBMs in recent years, all flown on a high angle to avoid the territory of neighbors.
Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said the missile likely landed in the waters outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone after about an hour-long flight. The landing site is about 250 kilometers (155 miles) off the western island of Oshimaoshima, which is close to where other North Korean ICBMs fell in recent months after test-flights.
Thursday’s launch came hours before South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol was to travel to Tokyo for a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida aimed at mending frayed ties and solidifying a trilateral security cooperation with the United States to counter North Korean threats.
After conducting a record number of missile tests last year, North Korea has extended its testing activities this year, including the Feb. 18 launch of its Hwasong-15 ICBM that is designed to strike the U.S. mainland. After that ICBM launch, North Korea said the test was meant to further bolster its “fatal” nuclear attack capacity against its rivals.
The North’s ongoing aggressive run of weapons tests has been widely expected; leader Kim Jong Un last week ordered his military to be ready to repel what he called “frantic war preparations moves” by his country’s rivals, referring to large ongoing drills between the U.S. and South Korea.
Pyongyang earlier this week fired cruise missiles from a submarine and sent short-range ballistic missiles across its territory into its eastern sea. Last week, North Korea also fired at least six short-range ballistic missiles from a western coastal area in an exercise supervised by Kim Jong Un, an event state media described as a simulated attack on an unspecified South Korean airfield.
The U.S.-South Korean drills that began Monday and are scheduled to continue until March 23 include computer simulations and live-fire field exercises.
Last year, Pyongyang test-fired more than 70 missiles, including nuclear-capable ones that target South Korea, Japan and the U.S. mainland. North Korea said many of those tests were a warning over previous South Korean-U.S. military drills.
The South Korea-Japan summit was arranged after Yoon’s government last week took a major step toward repairing bilateral ties strained by Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
His plan – to use local funds to compensate Koreans forced into industrial slave labor during the colonial rule without contributions from Japanese companies that employed them – has met fierce domestic opposition but reflects Yoon’s resolve to improve ties with Japan and boost Seoul-Tokyo-Washington security cooperation.
Under Kishida, Tokyo has also made a major break from its post-World War II principle of self-defense only, adopting a new national security strategy in December that includes the goals of acquiring preemptive strike capabilities and cruise missiles to counter growing threats from North Korea, China and Russia.