North Korea’s launch Wednesday morning of what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles prompted a fresh protest from Tokyo, but appears unlikely to derail ongoing talks over the abduction of Japanese nationals.
According to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, the Scud-type missiles were fired from an air base in the western province of Hwanghae at 4 a.m. and 4:20 a.m., flying approximately 500 km eastward before splashing down harmlessly into the sea.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo had confirmed that multiple ballistic missiles — probably two or three — had been fired into the Sea of Japan from North Korea, adding that Tokyo had filed a protest via Pyongyang’s embassy in Beijing.
Despite the provocative nature of the launch, Japan is unlikely to terminate ongoing negotiations with the country over missing Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and ’80s. The talks are seen by many relatives of abductees as the last chance for reconciliation with their loved ones.
North Korea last week launched a unit, called a “special investigation committee,” to probe outstanding issues related to the abductees. Tokyo has pinned much hope on its findings, which are due to be delivered as part of the unit’s first report and later publicized at the end of summer or early fall.
Asked if the missile launches would affect the abductee talks, Suga said only that Tokyo “will carefully keep watching developments of the (North’s) investigation.”
Suga also pointed out that Wednesday’s missile launches violated U.N. resolutions prohibiting the North from firing ballistic missiles.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera was more openly critical of the launch, telling reporters during a visit to Texas that he had trouble understanding the country’s intentions.
“This won’t be in the interests of North Korea,” he said.
Wednesday’s launches follow a slew of recent missile tests on March 3, March 26 and June 29, and appear to show Pyongyang’s disregard for repeated protests from Tokyo, which has put a priority on making tangible progress on the abductee issue.
Tokyo recently indicated its willingness to consider lifting economic sanctions imposed on the North and extend humanitarian assistance to the hermit state should the abductee investigation unit generate meaningful answers to questions over abductees’ fates.
The United States and South Korea, however, are concerned that Tokyo’s prioritization of the abduction issue could lead to a premature easing of pressure on the North, and disrupt international efforts aimed at convincing Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Japanese officials have emphasized that they are working toward a “comprehensive solution” to the nuclear, missile and abduction issues.
When Pyongyang test-fired ballistic missiles in December 2012, the Cabinet of then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda suspended diplomatic talks with Pyongyang in protest.
In contrast, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly said that abduction issues are a top priority for his administration, and has taken a more pragmatic approach to dealing with the North.
Abe’s tough stance against the country was a significant factor in his 2006 election win. He is currently serving his second term as prime minister, which began in December 2012.
Information from Kyodo added.