SEOUL (REUTERS) - North Korea fired two projectiles, which Japanese authorities said appeared to be ballistic missiles, into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan on Thursday (Oct 31), according to the Japanese coast guard and South Korea’s military.
The launches, which Japanese authorities identified as likely ballistic missiles, were the first since one day of talks between the United States and North Korea ended without an agreement on Oct. 5 in Sweden.
American officials have played down previous missile launches this year, saying they were short-range weapons. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has set an end-of-the-year deadline for denuclearisation talks with Washington, however, and in a statement on Sunday North Korea said it would be a mistake for the United States to ignore that deadline.
A US State Department spokesman said: “We are aware of reports of a North Korean missile launch. We are continuing to monitor the situation and consulting closely with our allies in Japan and South Korea.”
Analysts said the launches underscore how tense the situation has become after three meetings between Kim and US President Donald Trump – unprecedented top-level contact between the countries – failed to lead to any agreement over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.
“Make no mistake, if there is no change in the current trajectory of US-North Korea relations there is only one possible outcome: a long-range missile or nuclear weapons test by Pyongyang that will spark a crisis just like in 2017,” said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.
TWO PROJECTILES FIRED
The first of two “unidentified projectiles” was fired on Thursday at 4.35 pm local time (3.35pm, Singapore time) from South Phyongan Province, in the centre of the country, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a series of statements. A second projectile was detected at 4.38 pm.
The projectiles travelled an estimated 370km and reached an altitude of 90km, the JCS said, calling them “short range”.
Japanese authorities said they had landed outside Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles (370km) from land.
“Objects that appeared to be ballistic missiles were launched from North Korea,” Japan’s defence ministry said in a statement. “They did not land within our territory.” The American air base at Misawa, 1,127 km north of Tokyo, posted a “real world missile alert” and urged personnel to seek shelter, before later issuing an “all clear”.
The afternoon launch timing was a departure from this year's string of tests, which usually took place around dawn.
It also occurred on the day that South Korean President Moon Jae-in attended the funeral of his mother, who died on Tuesday.
In a message delivered via the border village of Panmunjom late on Wednesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had expressed“deep condolences” and “consolation” over Moon’s loss, Moon’s office said on Thursday.
On Wednesday, South Korea's Yonhap news agency cited an unnamed military source who said that movements of transporter erector launchers (TEL), used to fire missiles, had been detected in North Korea.
South Korea’s National Security Council held an emergency meeting after the launch on Thursday, and expressed its concern about what it called “short-range projectiles.”
“Our military is maintaining a readiness posture while tracking and monitoring related developments in preparation for another launch,” the JCS said in a statement after the launches on Thursday.
The JCS called on North Korea to stop the launches because they were “unhelpful” for reducing tensions on the peninsula.
Kim Dong-yup, a former navy officer who teaches at Seoul’s Kyungnam University, said the launches could be a so-called “running test fire” of a recently developed multiple-rocket system, with the aim of fine-tuning the system for full production.
Relations between the two Koreas have cooled since a flurry of personal meetings between Moon and Kim last year, and denuclearisation negotiations between North Korea and the United States appear stalled.
On Sunday, North Korea said there had been no progress in North Korea-United States relations.
Kim has set an end-of-the-year deadline for denuclearisation talks with Washington, and in the Sunday statement a senior North Korean official said it would be a mistake for the United States to ignore that deadline.
North Korea has tested several new missile designs this year, including a new submarine-launched ballistic missile fired from a platform in the sea on Oct. 2.
It says the missiles are necessary to defend against new warplanes and weapons acquired by South Korea, including the advanced F-35 stealth fighter jet.
North Korea has also accused the United States and South Korea of continuing hostile policies, including military drills.
On Monday, South Korea began its annual Hoguk military exercises, which it says are for self defence.
North Korean state media, however, blasted the drill as practice for invading the North, and said “South Korean military warmongers are driving the situation into an extreme one.” American officials have played down recent tests, saying they were short-range missiles.
Experts have said several of the new missiles tested this year by North Korea are designed to potentially evade missile defence systems deployed in South Korea and Japan.