SEOUL // North Korea on Monday fired four banned ballistic missiles that flew about 1,000 kilometres on average, with three of them landing in waters that Japan claims as its exclusive economic zone, South Korean and Japanese officials said.
The test-launches appeared to be a reaction to huge US-South Korean military drills that those countries consider routine but that Pyongyang insists are an invasion rehearsal.
Washington condemned the missile launch, saying it was ready to “use the full range of capabilities at our disposal against this growing threat”.
It was not clear the exact type of missile fired, but the tests will be viewed as a provocation by the Trump administration, which is working on its policy for North Korea.
The New York Times reported over the weekend that the United States cannot effectively counter Pyongyang’s actions despite efforts to perfect cyber and electronic strikes against its missile programme.
Pyongyang has test-launched a series of missiles of various ranges in recent months, including a new intermediate-range missile in February. It also conducted two nuclear tests last year.
The ramped-up tests come as leader Kim Jong-un pushes for a nuclear and missile programme that can deter what he calls US and South Korean hostility toward the North.
There have been widespread worries that the North will conduct an intercontinental ballistic missile test that, when perfected, could in theory reach the US mainland. Washington would consider such a capability a major threat.
US national security adviser HR McMaster and his South Korean counterpart Kim Kwan-jin talked condemned the launches and agreed to boost cooperation to get the North to face more effective sanctions and pressure, according to South Korea’s presidential office.
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said three missiles landed in the 200-nautical-mile offshore area where Tokyo has sovereign rights for exploring and exploiting resources. He said a fourth missile fell “near” Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Japanese leaders see the launches into nearby waters as a growing threat.
France condemned the missile drills and said Paris would consult UN Security Council members on the issue, while Russia expressed grave concern.
“We are seriously worried - these are the sort of actions that lead to a rise in tension in the region and of course in this situation, traditionally, Moscow calls for restraint from all sides,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
US state department spokesman Mark Toner said, “We remain prepared – and will continue to take steps to increase our readiness – to defend ourselves and our allies from attack, and are prepared to use the full range of capabilities at our disposal against this growing threat.”
Seoul and Washington call their military drills on the Korean Peninsula, which remains in a technical state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice and not a peace treaty, defensive and routine.
The North hates the military drills, which run until late April.
* Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters