SEOUL • Analysts say North Korea's latest missile tests demonstrated that the country was making progress in posing a direct threat to Japan, South Korea and US troops in the Pacific.
The second of two projectiles, both Musudan missiles, took off from Wonsan, a port city east of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and flew about 400km over the sea between North Korea and Japan, South Korea's Office of Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
Although the missile fell far short of its estimated full range of more than 3,200km - far enough to reach US military bases in the Pacific - the test was the first for the Musudan that was not immediately dismissed as a failure by the United States or South Korea.
In the five previous Musudan tests during the past two months - including one earlier on Wednesday - the projectiles all crashed into the sea or exploded soon after lift-off, according to South Korean military estimates.
Last month, the New York Times reported that US and South Korean intelligence officials had concluded that the country could now mount a small nuclear warhead on short- and medium-range missiles, a category that includes the Musudan.
The Musudan's progress has been followed closely by US military and intelligence officials. It is a road-mobile missile, meaning it can move around the country, making it a harder target to hit in a pre-emptive strike.
The Musudan is the North's only intermediate-range ballistic missile able to reach US military bases in Guam.The Japanese Defence Ministry said it believed that the test showed that the North's missile technology was advancing.
The second of the two missiles fired on Wednesday had reached an altitude of about 1,000km, it said, "indicating a degree of capability as a mid-range ballistic missile".
South Korean analysts said that North Korea appeared to have launched the second missile at a sharper angle to achieve a higher altitude and prevent it from flying over Japan.
They said such an altitude was required to test a technology that protects a nuclear warhead from the extreme heat and friction that it would encounter upon crashing through the earth's atmosphere. The North began testing the Musudan on April 15 after repeated calls by leader Kim Jong Un for his military to conduct more nuclear and missile tests.
The country has successfully tested its short-range Scud and midrange Rodong missiles. The Rodong, with an estimated range of 1,300km, can reach all of South Korea and most of Japan.
The altitude reached on Wednesday was the highest achieved by any North Korean missile and close to heights reached by intercontinental ballistic missiles, analysts said.
"The test appears to have been fully successful," said Mr Jeffrey Lewis, an analyst at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California.
He said the development of the Musudan is especially worrisome because it also advances the North's KN-08 programme of developing its first intercontinental ballistic missile with a range long enough to reach the United States.
Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea have each recovered half of a rocket nose cone that is suspected to have come from a rocket fired by North Korea on Feb 7.
"We will analyse the materials and the level of technology used," a Japanese Ministry of Defence official said.
The pockmarked 75kg part, almost 2m wide, was found on a beach in western Japan last Thursday.
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS