North Korea launched two ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan on Thursday (March 25), Japan’s prime minister said, fuelling tensions ahead of the Tokyo Olympics and ramping up pressure on the new Biden administration in Washington.
North Korea’s ballistic missiles are banned under United Nations Security Council Resolutions, and if the launch is confirmed it would represent a new challenge to President Joe Biden’s efforts to engage with Pyongyang, which have so far been rebuffed.
The Japanese government said the missiles flew about 450 km (280 miles) and landed outside the Japanese exclusive economic zone.
“The first launch in just less than a year represents a threat to peace and stability in Japan and the region and violates U.N. resolutions,” Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in comments aired by public broadcaster NHK.
Japan is due to host its delayed and pandemic-affected Olympic Games in less than four months.
Suga said he would ensure a safe and secure Olympics and “thoroughly discuss” North Korea issues including the launches with Biden during his visit to Washington next month.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff earlier reported at least two “unidentified projectiles” were fired into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan from North Korea’s South Hamgyong Province on the east coast.
South Korean and U.S. intelligence agencies were analyzing the data of the launch for additional information, the JCS said in a statement.
South Korea’s presidential Blue House will convene an emergency meeting of the national security council to discuss the launches.
U.S. officials confirmed North Korea carried out a new projectile launch, without offering details on the number or kind of projectile detected.
Japan’s coast guard warned ships against coming close to any fallen objects and asked them to provide information to the coast guard.
Over the weekend North Korea fired two short-range cruise missiles, U.S. and South Korean officials said, but Biden played down the those tests as “business as usual” and officials in Washington said they were still open to dialogue with Pyongyang.
Even short-range ballistic missile tests would be a “step-up” from the weekend test, and allow North Korea to improve its technology, send a proportionate response to U.S.-South Korea military drills, and signal to the United States that it is improving its arsenal, said Vipin Narang, a nuclear affairs expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.
The test launches should not torpedo diplomatic efforts, but they are a reminder of the cost of the failure to secure a deal with Pyongyang, he said.
“Every day that passes without a deal that tries to reduce the risks posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal is a day that it gets bigger and badder,” Narang said.
Biden’s diplomatic overtures to North Korea have gone unanswered, and Pyongyang said it would not engage until Washington dropped hostile policies, including carrying out military drills with South Korea.
The U.S. administration’s North Korea policy review is in its “final stages” and would host the national security advisers of allies Japan and South Korea next week to discuss that, senior U.S. officials said on Wednesday.
North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear and missile programs throughout 2020 in violation of U.N. sanctions dating back to 2006, helping fund them with about $300 million stolen through cyber hacks, according to independent U.N. sanctions monitors.
North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon or its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) since 2017.
In early 2018 North Korea announced a moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and ICBMs, though it says it no longer feels bound by that.
It has tested a number of new short-range missiles that can threaten South Korea and the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed there, most recently in March 2020.