Japan filed a strong protest Wednesday against Pyongyang over its test-firing of two intermediate-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan earlier in the day.
The launch took place as the leaders of the U.S, South Korea and Japan gathered in The Hague for summit talks on the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.
The timing of the missile launch during a trilateral meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Park Geun-hye and President Barack Obama suggested it was a deliberate show of force by Pyongyang aimed squarely at their three countries.
The launch of what are believed to be Rodong missiles marks a significant escalation from a series of shorter-range rocket launches in recent weeks to protest ongoing annual military drills by Washington and Seoul, which Pyongyang claims are preparation for an invasion.
It would be the North’s first launch of this type of missile since 2009, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in Seoul.
Speaking at a news conference in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the North did not give any warning to neighboring countries ahead of the launch, and that such tests pose a danger to nearby aircraft and vessels.
The incident violated the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration, in which the North pledged to extend its moratorium on firing ballistic missiles, as well as U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban Pyongyang from firing ballistic missiles, Suga said.
“We have filed a grave protest” against Pyongyang, he told the news conference.
The two ballistic missiles were fired between 2:30 a.m. and 2:40 a.m. Wednesday from about 50 km north of Pyongyang in western North Korea. After flying more than 600 km eastward, they dropped harmlessly into the Sea of Japan approximately 500 km east of the Korean Peninsula, according to government officials.
The launches also came on the fourth anniversary of the sinking of a South Korean warship that Seoul and other nations blame on a North Korean torpedo. Pyongyang denies involvement in the attack, which killed 46 sailors. They also pose a big challenge to what had been recently improving relations between Pyongyang and Seoul.
A South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman said the trajectory and speed of the missiles indicated they were of the Rodong class. They passed over the peninsula at altitudes of more than 160 km with a top speed exceeding Mach 7.0, according to the Yonghap News Agency.
A Rodong-class missile is believed to have a maximum range of up to 1,300 km. The North currently has an estimated arsenal of 300 Rodong missiles that could in theory be fitted with nuclear warheads — once it masters the ability to miniaturize atomic bombs — and, with a potential range of up to 1,300 km, are capable of reaching Tokyo and key U.S. military bases in Japan.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera expressed concern that a ballistic missile like the ones fired Wednesday could pose a military threat to Japan.
“This is an incident Japan will keep watching with utmost attention,” he told reporters.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the tests were carefully planned, noting that previous Rodong tests had been launched from North Korea’s east coast, and that firing them from near Pyongyang curtailed their reach into the Sea of Japan.
“If they had gone closer to Japan, that could have created a serious political backlash, not only from Japan but also possibly Russia,” Yang said. “It’s a clear violation of U.N. resolutions, but the North is willing to risk sanctions to showcase its capabilities and press the U.S., Japan and the South to resume the six-party talks.”
Japan and the North are scheduled to reopen government-to-government talks between bureau chief-level officials next week in Beijing. Tokyo has proposed that the two countries discuss issues related to the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in 1970s and 1980s.
Wednesday’s launches indicate that Pyongyang is likely to maintain a tough stance during the discussions. Suga said Japan will not cancel the planned talks with the North as a result of the launches, as the meeting represents an opportunity for Tokyo to convey its concern over the North’s missile and nuclear weapon development programs.
Speaking Tuesday in Geneva, So Se Pyong, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, told a news conference that Pyongyang considers the abduction issue resolved, and that the two countries should instead focus on discussing compensation for Korean “comfort women,” who were pressed into service as prostitutes for the Japanese Imperial Army at wartime military brothels.
Suga said he was not aware of any such request having been made by a North Korean official, adding that the comfort women issue has yet to be brought up during government-to-government contact between the two countries.
“For us, the abduction issue has not been solved at all,” Suga said.
Information from AP, AFP-JIJI added