North Korea fired off a volley of three ballistic missiles from its west coast Monday that fell within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, a move that Tokyo called a grave threat to national security amid Pyongyang’s growing ability to strike the Japanese archipelago.
The North launched the missiles from near Hwangju, North Hwanghae province, at around 12:13 p.m., according to the Defense Ministry. The three missiles flew about 1,000 km and fell about 200 km to 250 km west of Okushiri Island off the western coast of Hokkaido. The ministry said that the missiles were likely to have been short-range Scud missiles or Nodong medium-range ballistic missiles, which have a striking range that includes Japan, the ministry said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that Tokyo had lodged a protest — using “the strongest terms” — with the North through its embassy in Beijing.
“This is a threat to Japan’s national security,” Suga told a daily briefing. “At the same time, this is a provocation against the international community as the Group of 20 summit meeting is currently being held.”
Pyongyang has fired off a spate of missiles since the beginning of the year, but this is just the second time North Korean missiles have landed inside Japan’s EEZ. Last month, the North test-fired what also appeared to be a Nodong missile.
The hermit nation also claimed to have successfully test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Aug. 24, when the foreign ministers of Japan, China and South Korea met in Tokyo to discuss regional issues, including the North’s nuclear saber-rattling.
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada indicated that Monday’s missiles seem to have fallen around the same area, an indication that the North is enhancing is missile capabilities and presents a grave national security threat to Japan.
Pyongyang’s missile barrage also came as the G-20 meeting was being held in Hangzhou, China.
Although the North’s intention remains unclear, a high ranking Japanese government official said that it could be trying to send message to leaders that the missiles’ striking range could even hit Hangzhou.
Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, however, cautioned about this narrative.
“The timing may have something to do with the G-20, but we should not read too much from it,” Kotani said. “The DPRK’s intention is now rather clear with the frequent missile tests: It wishes the U.S. and international community will accept it as a nuclear weapons state and go into arms control talks with the U.S. in exchange for a peace treaty.”
DPRK is the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s formal name.
Japan might also have been an afterthought for the North in Monday’s missile tests.
Robert E. Kelly, a professor of international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea, said the tests are unlikely to have been aimed at Japan.
“Rather it’s the convenience of the Sea of Japan being a neighboring, large open space,” Kelly noted. “That said, these missiles are certainly designed to strike Japan should Kim Jong Un choose that. I’d guess that these were probably a slap at the G-20.”
It could also be a response to the decision by Washington and Seoul to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in the South to counter missile and nuclear threats from North Korea.
The move came just hours after the leaders of South Korea and China met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, where Chinese President Xi Jinping told his South Korean counterpart that China opposes the U.S. deployment of the THAAD system, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday. China has repeatedly expressed anger since the United States and South Korea made a final decision in July to deploy it.
“Mishandling the issue is not conducive to strategic stability in the region and could intensify disputes,” Xinhua quoted Xi as telling Park.
Beijing worries the system’s radar will be able to track its military capabilities.
North Korea, which had threatened a “physical response” against the THAAD decision, has conducted a series of military technology tests this year, including a fourth nuclear test in January, in defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions that were tightened in March.
Officials in South Korea and the U.S. have tried to assuage Chinese fears, insisting that the move is designed purely to counter growing missile threats from North Korea, and not to target China.
Xi said China and South Korea shared “broad common interests” and should “cherish their existing cooperative foundation and overcome difficulties and challenges”, Xinhua reported. He also reaffirmed China’s commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Since the decision to deploy THAAD in South Korea, China’s Defense Ministry has since confirmed that it is pressing ahead with its own anti-missile system tests.
But experts said Monday’s launch could soften China’s stance on THAAD.
“In fact, today’s tests will certainly offer more rigour to Park’s argument of deploying THAAD while Xi may find it more difficult to oppose this development in light of the DRPK’s missile campaign,” said Sebastian Maslow, an assistant professor at the Tohoku University Graduate School of Law in Sendai.
Information from Reuters added
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