North Korea launched a ballistic missile into the sea on Sunday, its neighbours said, in a resumption of weapons tests that came as the US and its allies are focused on Russia's attacks in Ukraine.
South Korea's joint chiefs of staff reported that North Korea had fired a suspected ballistic missile towards the sea off its east coast from a location near Sunan, where Pyongyang's international airport is located.
Two short-range ballistic missiles were launched from the airport on January 16.
Sunday's missile flew to a maximum altitude of about 620 kilometres and a range of 300km, the joint chiefs of staff said.
Analysts said the flight data did not closely match earlier tests, and suggested it could be a medium-range ballistic missile fired on a "lofted" trajectory.
"There have been frequent launches since the start of the year, and North Korea is continuing to rapidly develop ballistic missile technology," Japan's Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said.
He said North Korea was threatening the security of Japan, the region and the international community.
North Korea's previous test was on January 30, when it fired a Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missile that was reported to have flown to an altitude of about 2,000km and a range of 800km. Most of the launches during seven rounds of tests in January were of short-range missiles.
North Korea's ballistic missile launches are banned by UN Security Council resolutions, which have imposed sanctions on the country over its missile and nuclear weapons programmes.
The latest launch comes as world attention is focused on Ukraine, where Russian forces are attacking the capital, Kiev, and other cities.
“If North Korea deliberately carried out the missile launch while the international community is distracted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, such an act is absolutely unforgivable,” Mr Kishi told reporters. “Whatever the motives are, North Korea’s repeated missile launches are absolutely inexcusable and we cannot overlook considerable missile and nuclear advancement.”
The launch came a day after North Korea made its first response to the Ukraine war in the form of an article by a government analyst that expressed support for Russia and criticised the US.
“The basic cause of the Ukraine incident lies in the high-handedness and arbitrariness of the United States, which has ignored Russia’s legitimate calls for security guarantees and only sought a global hegemony and military dominance while clinging to its sanctions campaigns,” Ri Ji Song, a researcher at a North Korean state-run institute on international politics, said in a post published on the website of the Foreign Ministry.
South Korea's National Security Council convened an emergency meeting to discuss the launch, which it called "regrettable", said the presidential Blue House.
"Launching a ballistic missile at a time when the world is making efforts to resolve the Ukraine war is never desirable for peace and stability in the world, the region, and on the Korean Peninsula," the statement said.
China's representative on the Korean Peninsula, Liu Xiaoming, said on Sunday that he spoke by phone with his US counterpart, Sung Kim, and urged Washington to address North Korea's legitimate and reasonable concerns with greater attention, so as to create conditions for restarting dialogue.
"I pointed out that, under current situation, relevant parties should be cautious in words and actions, avoid stimulating each other, so as to prevent escalation of tension on the Korean Peninsula," Mr Liu said on Twitter, without specifying when the phone conversation took place and without mentioning the latest test.
North Korea, which has close ties to China, did not test any missiles during the Beijing Olympics in February. The 2022 Winter Paralympics begin in Beijing on Friday.
The US says it is open to talks with North Korea without preconditions, but Pyongyang has so far rejected those overtures as insincere.
With reporting from agencies.