North Korea yesterday fired an intermediate-range missile that flew about 1,000km into waters within Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone, the latest in a spate of tests that has raised tension in the region.
The ballistic missile went the farthest in Pyongyang's tests so far and was the first since 1998 to land in Japanese territory, drawing strong condemnation from Tokyo, Seoul and their security ally Washington.
It has also raised concern that North Korea is becoming a bigger security threat to the region.
According to officials from South Korea and Japan, two missiles - said to be Rodong - were launched at 7.50am from an area near the south-western county of Eunyul.
One exploded soon after its launch and the other fell into the sea 250km west of the Oga peninsula in Japan's northern Akita prefecture.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned the launch, calling it an "unforgivable act of aggression" that represents a grave threat to the country's security.
Pyongyang has raised the stakes this time, showing that its missile is capable of hitting Japan which is more than 1,000km away. This is the farthest its mid-range missile has flown, a marked improvement from a missile fired in June that travelled 400km and one last month that went over 500km.
Dr Masashi Nishihara, president of Japan's Research Institute for Peace and Security, told The Straits Times that the height and range of the latest missile prove that North Korea could be a viable threat.
Japan has identified North Korea as a key threat in its latest Defence White Paper, acknowledging that it "could be possible" that Pyongyang has developed nuclear warheads after four nuclear tests.
North Korea has been trying to miniaturise its warheads, but analysts said they are still too big to be attached to missiles.
Kobe University's international security expert Tosh Minohara said North Korea's missile technology may have improved with each new test, but it is still "nowhere near the standards of advanced nations".
But the Japanese government is not taking the matter lightly. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Tokyo has lodged a protest with Pyongyang and will work closely with Washington and Seoul to guard against further provocations.
He said they will respond with a sense of urgency as the safety of vessels and aircraft operating in Japan- controlled waters is under threat.
Over in South Korea, analysts say the missile launch is a show of force against upcoming annual military drills with the United States. It is also seen as a protest against South Korea's decision to deploy the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-missile system in the country by the end of next year.
Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se said yesterday's provocation further underscores the need for Seoul and Washington to deploy Thaad to guard against growing missile threats from Pyongyang.
This latest missile launch is said to be the 32nd since Mr Kim Jong Un came to power in North Korea in 2011. Only 16 were fired during his father's 18-year rule.
Dr Lee Seong Hyon of the Sejong Institute think-tank noted that the missile was launched from North Korea's west coast, and that, if fired from its usual test site in the east coast, could have hit Japan.
"North Korea wants to demonstrate to nearby countries including South Korea and Japan that it has the capability to target their airports, seaports, military bases, and even the place that will house Thaad," he said.