SEOUL – North Korea test fired what appeared to be two medium-range ballistic missiles on Friday, just days after leader Kim Jong Un promised a series of nuclear warhead tests and missile launches.
Military tensions have been soaring on the divided Korean Peninsula since the North carried out its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6, followed a month later by a long-range rocket launch that was widely seen as a disguised ballistic missile test.
U.S. defense officials said they had tracked two launches — both believed to be medium-range Nodong missiles fired from road-mobile launch vehicles.
The Nodong is a scaled-up Scud variant with a maximum range of around 1,300 km (800 miles).
South Korean military officials said the first missile was launched from Sukchon in the country’s southwest at 5:55 a.m. (2055 GMT Thursday) and flew 800 km before splashing down into the Sea of Japan.
The second, fired about 20 minutes later, disappeared off radar early into its flight, the officials said.
Friday’s launches came a day after U.S. President Barack Obama signed an order implementing tough sanctions adopted earlier this month against North Korea by the U.N. Security Council.
For the past two weeks, Pyongyang has maintained a daily barrage of nuclear strike threats against both Seoul and Washington, ostensibly over ongoing, large-scale South Korea-US military drills that the North sees as provocative rehearsals for invasion.
To register its anger at the joint exercises, the North fired two short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan on March 10.
A few days later, Kim announced that a nuclear warhead explosion test and firings of “several kinds” of ballistic missiles would be carried out “in a short time.”
Existing U.N. sanctions ban North Korea from the use of any ballistic missile test, although short-range launches tend to go unpunished.
A Nodong test is more provocative, given its greater range, which makes it capable of hitting most of Japan.
The last Nodong test was in March 2014, when two of the missiles were fired into the Sea of Japan, also called the East Sea by South Korea.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he had ordered his government to investigate Friday’s launch, and confirm the safety of shipping in the splashdown zone.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement calling on Pyongyang to refrain from any actions that could “further raise tensions.”
While North Korea is known to have a small stockpile of nuclear weapons, its ability to deliver them accurately to a chosen target on the tip of a ballistic missile has been a subject of heated debate.
There are numerous question marks over the North’s weapons delivery systems, with many experts believing it is still years from developing a working intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could strike the continental United States.
Kim’s announcement of further tests on Tuesday came as he monitored a simulated test of the warhead re-entry technology required for such a long-range nuclear attack.
The test was a complete success, state media said, and provided a “sure guarantee” of the warhead’s ability to withstand the intense heat and vibration of re-entry — a major step in the North’s push toward a genuine ICBM nuclear strike capability.
South Korea said it doubted the North had mastered re-entry technology, although it was less skeptical a few days before when Kim said it had miniaturized a nuclear warhead that could fit on a missile.
Earlier this week, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said North Korea’s endless threats and provocative behavior reflected a “sense of crisis” in Pyongyang at its increasing diplomatic and economic isolation.
“If North Korea continues its provocations and confrontation with the international community and does not walk the path of change, it will walk the path of self-destruction,” Park said.
North Korea has never tested an ICBM, but numerous experts believe it may be on the verge of doing so, and have warned such a move would comprise a highly dangerous military escalation.