North Korea fired two intermediate ballistic missiles from its east coast yesterday morning, with the second travelling for 400km, causing further concern that the defiant state's missiles are becoming a "practical threat".
The move drew strong condemnation from Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, with US State Department spokesman John Kirby urging Pyongyang to refrain from further provocations. He also reiterated America's "ironclad" commitment to the defence of its allies South Korea and Japan.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye warned that reckless provocation will only bring complete isolation and self-destruction, while Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his country "can never forgive this" and has lodged a firm protest.
North Korea's nuclear and missile tests since January drew the toughest-ever sanctions from the UN Security Council in March. But that has not stopped it from test-firing more missiles and further raising tensions in the region.
Yesterday, the first missile, believed to be a Musudan with a strike range of around 4,000km, was launched at 5.58am but presumably failed, according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff.
SENDING A MESSAGE
North Korea is sending the message that its Musudan is functional and that it works. Whether it flies 400km, 500km or 4,000km doesn't matter.
DR PAIK HAK SOON, of the Sejong Institute think-tank.
The second missile was fired two hours later. It is not known yet if it is considered a success, but the missile travelled 400km, more than half the distance from North Korea's coast to Japan's south-west coast. It also rose to an altitude of 1,000km before landing in the sea.
Noting the new height reached, Japan's Defence Minister Gen Nakatani told reporters in Tokyo that Pyongyang has shown "some capability" in developing intermediate ballistic missiles. "The threat to Japan is intensifying," he added.
North Korea has deployed some 50 Musudan missiles since 2007, but started test-firing them only this year. The first test, on April 15, was said to be a failure. Subsequent tests in late April and early May were also unsuccessful, with the missiles exploding in mid-air soon after take-off.
But the latest test shows that the 19m-long Musudan has become a "practical threat" to neighbouring Japan and US forces stationed in Guam, said Dr Paik Hak Soon of the Sejong Institute think-tank.
"North Korea is sending the message that its Musudan is functional and that it works. Whether it flies 400km, 500km or 4,000km doesn't matter," he said.
The recent spate of tests suggests that North Korea "must have felt the need to demonstrate the capability of the Musudan to make it a threat to the international community, the US in particular", added Dr Paik.
It is telling that South Korea's presidential office convened a national security meeting shortly after the two tests yesterday. Details of the meeting were not revealed, but the Foreign Ministry issued a stern warning that Pyongyang will "face greatly toughened sanctions and pressure from us and the international community".
The ministry also brushed off Pyongyang's recent offers for dialogue. "The North's continued nuclear and missile provocations clearly show how deceitful and hypocritical its past proposals for talks are," it said in a statement.
It urged Pyongyang to stop further provocations and emphasised that the South Korean government and military are fully prepared to "strongly retaliate" against any move that threatens the safety of their people.