Asia Pacific

North Korea fires apparent Scud-type missile that lands in Japan’s exclusive economic zone

by Jesse Johnson and Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writers

North Korea on Monday fired an apparent short-range ballistic missile that is believed to have fallen into Japan’s exclusive economic zone — a move that prompted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to vow “concrete measures” in response.

The U.S. Pacific Command said in a statement later the same day that it had detected the launch of “a short-range ballistic missile” near the eastern coastal city of Wonsan, adding that it had tracked the missile for six minutes until it landed in the Sea of Japan.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told an emergency news conference early Monday that the missile, launched at around 5:40 a.m., is “believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone,” which extends 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its coast, into the Sea of Japan.

Suga said the missile was estimated to have landed some 300 km off Shimane Prefecture’s Oki Islands. He said there were no reports of damage to planes or vessels in the area, adding that Japan filed a protest with North Korea, using “the strongest wording” possible to condemn the move.

“The firing of the ballistic missile . . . clearly violates resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council,” Suga said.

A top North Korean official told the BBC in April that the country will continue to test missiles despite international condemnation and growing military tensions with the U.S. and its allies.

“We’ll be conducting more missile tests on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis,” Vice Foreign Minister Han Song Ryol said at the time.

Monday’s test was the third launch in as many weeks.

While weekly missile tests might put a strain on the regime, regular launches could become a “new normal,” according to Shea Cotton, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California.

“I think this might become the new normal where North Korea tests a missile regularly,” Cotton said. “Perhaps not every week but maybe every two weeks. At least until something changes like some sort of diplomatic settlement or deal.”

Meeting with reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office on Monday, Abe said that Tokyo will “never tolerate” Pyongyang’s repeated provocations.

“To deter North Korea, we, together with the United States, will take concrete actions,” Abe said. He did not elaborate.

Abe said leaders of the Group of Seven developed nations, who wrapped up their annual meeting in Taormina, Sicily, on Saturday, have agreed that the North Korean issue is “one of the top-priority issues of the international community.”

At the summit, Abe also called for China and Russia to effectively use their influence with the North to rein in the isolated nation.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Monday that he and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson agreed in a 25-minute telephone conference that Tokyo and Washington will further ramp up pressure on China and Russia to play a larger role in curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile ambitions. He didn’t elaborate, however, on what specific actions he expects from the two nations.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said the ministry believes the missile — judging from the 400-km distance it flew — was a Scud or Scud variant. The ministry estimated that it had hit a maximum altitude of about 100 km.

“There is nothing about the way the missile flew that suggested its trajectory was in any way extraordinary,” Inada, said, ruling out the possibility it had been tested on either a “depressed” or “lofted” trajectory.

In an apparent bid to tout its quick response time, the Japanese government said that notification that the missile could fall into the EEZ came just 35 minutes after its launch, Kyodo News reported. It took Tokyo about 90 minutes on May 21 and 75 minutes on May 14 for the Defense Ministry to release information on those launches.

The launch also came the same day as China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, arrived in Japan for a three-day visit. He was scheduled to speak with Shotaro Yachi, head of the National Security Council, on Monday, according to Kyodo, with the launch likely to top their discussions.

Monday’s launch marked the 12th test-firing by the nuclear-armed country this year. It was the first time since early March that a North Korean missile has fallen within Japan’s EEZ and the fourth time in total. On March 6, three of four Scud ER (extended-range) missiles fired by the country landed inside the zone.

North Korean state-run media said those launches were part of rehearsal for striking U.S. military bases in Japan. Analysts said that the hypothetical target of that drill was U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

The North’s Scuds, which use liquid fuel, are known to have a range of 300-500 km. But it has recently developed the Scud-ER, which is capable of traveling up to 1,000 km, putting parts of Japan within range.

North Korea last test-fired a ballistic missile just eight days ago from an east coast site and on Sunday said it had tested a new anti-aircraft weapon supervised by leader Kim Jong Un.

Pyongyang said the May 21 test of the Pukguksong-2, a solid-fuel, medium-range missile capable of striking most of Japan, was “perfect” and that the weapon was ready to be deployed “for action.”

Abe characterized that launch as a “challenge to the world.”

Pyongyang, undeterred by multiple UNSC sanctions resolutions over its nuclear weapons and missile programs, continues to defy the international community with atomic and rocket tests.

There has been mounting speculation that Pyongyang will conduct a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, suggested by a New Year’s Day address in which the North Korean leader claimed that the country was in the “final stages” of developing such a weapon.

U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed that a launch of an ICBM by Pyongyang “won’t happen” on his watch.

Staff writer Reiji Yoshida contributed to this report