SEOUL – North Korea fired two short-range missiles off its east coast on Monday, South Korean officials said, a defiant response to annual military exercises between South Korea and the United States but one which drew a swift protest from Japan.
The firing came hours before the U.S.-South Korean military exercises were scheduled to begin, drills which the secretive North denounces as a preparation for war.
The missiles hit the sea early on Monday morning after traveling for about 490 km (305 miles), according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said North Korea fired the missiles without designating any no-sail zones, which was regarded as a provocation.
“If North Korea takes provocative actions, our military will react firmly and strongly so North Korea will regret it in its bones,” Kim told a news briefing.
Pyongyang has escalated its rhetoric against the drills, with a spokesman for its army general staff saying Washington and Seoul “should be dealt with only by merciless strikes”.
Japan quickly lodged a protest with North Korea over the latest missile launches, saying they posed a serious threat to safety at sea and in the sky.
“The ballistic missile launches by North Korea are extremely problematic conduct in terms of aviation and navigation safety,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.
“We swiftly lodged a stern protest with North Korea.”
Speaking to reporters, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida denounced Pyongyang’s move as infringing on U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban it from any launch using ballistic missile technology. It also runs counter to accords at the six-party talks aimed at ending the North’s nuclear ambitions, Kishida said.
Japan needs to tread a fine line between conveying its condemnation to Pyongyang while not derailing bilateral talks aimed at resolving the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents decades ago.
In July, Japan eased some sanctions on North Korea in return for the North reopening its investigation into the fate of Japanese abductees. Little progress has been made so far.
The annual joint exercises between South Korea and the U.S. always trigger a surge in military tensions and warlike rhetoric on the divided peninsula, and analysts saw the North’s missile tests as a prelude to a concerted campaign of saber-rattling.
“And if there is a particularly sharp escalation, we could see the North orchestrating some kind of clash on the maritime border,” said Jeung Young-tae, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
North Korea frequently tests short-range missiles off its coast as part of military drills.
The launches this time came with a stern warning from the nuclear-armed North Korean People’s Army that this year’s military drills would bring the peninsula “toward the brink of war.”
North Korea has carried out three nuclear tests — in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
In January, the North offered a moratorium on further tests if this year’s joint drills were cancelled — a proposal rejected by Washington as an “implicit threat” to carry out a fourth atomic detonation.
Analyst Jeung said Pyongyang was unlikely to conduct a fourth test just to protest against the exercises.
“Nuclear tests carry more significance than that,” he said, noting that the North’s testing schedule was primarily driven by technical development.
“On the other hand, there is the chance of a mid- or long-range missile test,” Jeung said.
“I would say that a demonstration that it could deliver a nuclear warhead would be more threatening to the world than an actual nuclear test,” he added.
Although its nuclear program remains shrouded in uncertainty, Pyongyang is currently believed to have a stockpile of some 10 to 16 nuclear weapons fashioned from either plutonium or weapons-grade uranium.
A new research report by U.S. experts published this week estimated that North Korea could be on track to have an arsenal of 100 nuclear weapons by 2020.