By Josh Smith and Soo-hyang Choi
SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korea fired a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan on Thursday, hours before South Korea’s president flew to Tokyo for a summit that discussed ways to counter the nuclear-armed North.
North Korea has conducted multiple missile launches this week amid ongoing joint South Korea-U.S. military drills that Pyongyang condemns as hostile actions.
The missile, fired at 7:10 a.m. (2210 GMT on Wednesday) from Pyongyang, flew about 1,000 kilometres at a lofted trajectory, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
Japan’s defence ministry said the ICBM-type projectile appeared to have flown higher than 6,000 km for about 70 minutes.
It most likely landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zones, 200 km west of Oshima-Oshima Island in Hokkaido, northern Japan, the ministry said.
The ministry released video footage shot by the crew of a Japanese F-15 fighter jet of what it believed was flaming debris from the missile falling through the sky.
Japan has not confirmed any information on damage from the missile, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said, adding it had delivered a protest through North Korea’s embassy in Beijing.
“North Korea’s missile launch is a barbaric act that escalates its provocation to the entire international society,” Matsuno said. “We will confirm close cooperation with South Korea and the U.S. towards North Korea’s complete denuclearisation at the Japan-South Korea summit today.”
South Korea convened a national security council meeting and “strongly condemned” the missile launch as a grave act of provocation threatening international peace.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered his country’s military to carry out drills with the United States as planned, saying North Korea would pay for its “reckless provocations,” according to his office.
South Korean and American forces began 11 days of joint drills, dubbed “Freedom Shield 23,” on Monday, held on a scale not seen since 2017 to counter the North’s growing threats.
Speaking at the Geneva based Conference on Disarmament on Thursday, North Korean ambassador to the United Nations Han Tae Song said recent launch exercises by the North were countermeasures against threats to its security.
The joint U.S.-South Korea drills are an “extremely dangerous provocative military action” that could drive the situation into an “uncontrolled and unpredictable crisis,” he said.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said after the launch that regional peace and stability were the most important issue, and White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the United States “strongly condemns” North Korea’s latest launch for needlessly raising tensions in the region.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has assessed the missile did not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to its allies.
Thursday’s launch came as Yoon was headed to Japan for the first such summit with Kishida in more than a decade, part of an effort to overcome historical, political and economic disputes in the name of better cooperating to counter North Korea and other challenges.
As part of the efforts, the two U.S. allies have agreed to share real-time tracking of North Korean missile launches, and have vowed to further deepen military cooperation.
“Today’s missile launch is an apparent protest not only to the South Korea-U.S. drills but also to South Korea and Japan moving to step up their military cooperation,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute.
“But such a protest will only push the Yoon government to further strengthen cooperation with Japan, and trilaterally with the United States, and have a boomerang effect,” he added.
It was not immediately clear what type of ICBM was launched on Thursday, but a South Korean military official said that the missile appeared similar to the Hwasong-17 – a liquid-fuel missile North Korea has tested before – and that it was unlikely to be a new solid-fuel ICBM.
The Hwasong-17 is the North’s biggest missile, and is the largest road-mobile, liquid-fuelled ICBM in the world, believed to be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead anywhere in the United States.
Some analysts have speculated it could carry multiple warheads and decoys to better penetrate missile defences.
North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programmes are banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions, but Pyongyang says weapons development is necessary to counter “hostile policies” by Washington and its allies.
North Korea’s state news agency KCNA said on Sunday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un led a ruling party meeting to discuss and decide on “important practical” war deterrence measures, saying “provocations of the U.S. and South Korea are reaching the red-line.”
(Reporting by Hyunsu Yim, Josh Smith, Soo-hyang Choi and Ju-min Park in Seoul, Kantaro Komiya and Kaori Kaneko in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, and Emma Farge in Geneva; Editing by Sandra Maler, Gerry Doyle and Bernadette Baum)
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