SEOUL, Sept 15 (Reuters) - North Korea and South Korea test fired ballistic missiles on Wednesday, the latest volley in an arms race that has seen both countries develop increasingly sophisticated weapons while efforts to get talks going on defusing tension prove fruitless.
South Korean President Moon was attending that test firing when word came of the North Korean launches, its first ballistic missile tests since March.
North Korea fired a pair of ballistic missiles that landed in the sea off its east coast, according to officials in South Korea and Japan, just days after it tested a cruise missile that is believed to have nuclear capabilities.
Japan's defence ministry said late on Wednesday the missiles had landed inside Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), contradicting earlier government comments that they fell outside its waters.
North Korea has been steadily developing its weapons systems amid a stand-off over talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals in return for U.S. sanctions relief. The negotiations, initiated between former U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2018, have stalled since 2019.
"North Korea fired two unidentified ballistic missiles from its central inland region towards the east coast, and intelligence authorities of South Korea and the United States are conducting detailed analysis for further information," South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.
The missiles were fired just after 12:30 p.m. (0330 GMT), flying 800 km (497 miles) to a maximum altitude of 60 km (37 miles), the JCS reported.
'THE STRONGEST KOREA'
The United States condemned North Korea's missile launch, saying it was in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and posed a threat to Pyongyang's neighbours, a State Department spokesperson said, without mentioning South Korea's tests. read more
The U.S. military's Indo-Pacific Command said North Korea's missile launches did not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel, territory or allies, but highlighted the destabilising impact of its illicit weapons programme.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called the missile launch "outrageous" and strongly condemned it as a threat to peace and security in the region.
China's foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a daily briefing that China hoped "relevant parties" would "exercise restraint".
South Korea has been splurging on a range of new military systems, including ballistic missiles, submarines and its first aircraft carrier. It has a stated policy of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
The arms race has accelerated under Moon for a number of reasons, including his push for more foreign policy autonomy, wariness of relying on the United States after Trump's presidency and military developments in both North Korea and China, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea expert at King's College London.
"South Korea would face many political and legal obstacles to develop nuclear weapons, both internal and external," he said. "So it will develop all other capabilities to deter North Korea and show who the strongest Korea is."
President Moon cited the nuclear-armed North's "asymmetric capabilities" as a reason for South Korea to develop better missiles.
"Enhancing our missile capability is exactly what's needed as deterrence against North Korea's provocation," he said, while stressing that the SLBM test had been planned and was not in response to the North's launches.
In a statement carried by state media, Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, criticised Moon's speech, saying his talk of North Korean provocations was inappropriate.
Without mentioning the latest launches by the North, Kim Yo Jong said North Korea's activities were routine defensive measures, and that inter-Korean ties could break down if Moon continues to "slander" the North.
She complained of an "illogical... foolish attitude" that portrayed South Korean behaviour as a legitimate action to support peace and North Korea's actions as a threat to peace.
Unlike the South, North Korea's ballistic missile systems have been banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions.
In November 2017, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the entire United States and declared it had become a nuclear power.
North Korea said it successfully tested a new long-range cruise missile last weekend. Analysts say that weapon could be its first cruise missile with a nuclear capability. read more
The latest launch came as foreign ministers of South Korea and China held talks in Seoul amid concern over North Korea's tests and the stalled denuclearisation negotiations.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when asked about the cruise missile tests, said all parties should work to promote peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.
"Not only North Korea but other countries are carrying out military activity," he told reporters.
In a meeting with Wang on Wednesday, Moon asked for China's support to restart dialogue, saying North Korea had not been responding to South Korean and U.S. offers for talks or engagement such as humanitarian aid, Moon's spokesperson said.