North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile on Sunday towards its eastern seas, extending a provocative streak in weapons testing as a US aircraft carrier visits South Korea for joint military exercises in response to the North’s growing nuclear threat.
South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said the missile launched from the western inland town of Taechon flew 600km (370 miles) cross-country on a maximum altitude of 60km (37 miles) before landing in waters off North Korea’s eastern coast.
South Korea’s military condemned North Korea’s launch as a violation of United Nations security council resolutions.
“North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile is an act of grave provocation that threatens the peace and security of the Korean peninsula and international community,” South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said in a statement.
South Korea had earlier detected signs the North was preparing to fire a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the president’s office said on Saturday – a weapon Pyongyang last tested in May.
The US Indo-Pacific Command said the launch did not pose an “immediate threat to US personnel or territory, or to our allies”, but still highlighted the destabilising impact of North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons and missile programs.
The Sunday launch is the latest in a record-breaking blitz of weapons tests by nuclear-armed Pyongyang this year, including firing an intercontinental ballistic missile at full range.
In May, the North test-fired a short range ballistic missile from Sinpo, a major naval shipyard in North Korea.
“North Korea fired an unidentified ballistic missile into the East Sea,” Seoul’s joint chiefs of staff said early on Sunday, without giving further details.
Japan’s coast guard also confirmed a likely ballistic missile launch, citing information from Tokyo’s defence ministry.
“Vessels please be vigilant for new information and if you spot any foreign objects please don’t get closer to them but inform the coast guard,” the coast guard said.
Japan’s public broadcaster NHK said the object appeared to have fallen outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
South Korea’s hawkish president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, has vowed to beef up joint military exercises with the US after years of failed diplomacy with North Korea under his predecessor.
On Friday, the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and vessels from its strike group docked in the southern port city of Busan, part of a push by Seoul and Washington to have more US strategic assets operating in the region.
Yoon is also due to meet the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, on Thursday when she visits Seoul this week, after a visit by president Joe Biden in May and the US House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, last month.
The USS Reagan will take part in joint drills off South Korea’s east coast this month.
Washington is Seoul’s key security ally and stations about 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect it from the North.
The two countries have long carried out joint exercises, which they insist are purely defensive but North Korea sees them as rehearsals for an invasion.
“Pyongyang could be making a show of strength while a US aircraft carrier is visiting South Korea for defence exercises,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“But North Korea’s major tests are, most of all, part of a long-term campaign for advancing offensive military capabilities.”
South Korean and US officials have been warning for months that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, is preparing to conduct another nuclear test.
The isolated regime has tested nuclear weapons six times since 2006. Its last and most powerful one in 2017 – which Pyongyang claimed was a hydrogen bomb – had an estimated yield of 250 kilotons.
On Wednesday, the North Korea-focused website 38 North said its analysis of commercial satellite imagery showed multiple barges and other vessels gathered at the eastern port of Sinpo, where North Korea has a major shipyard building submarines. The report said the North was possibly preparing to launch a new submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles.
North Korea has been pushing hard to be able to fire nuclear-armed missiles from submarines. Such weapons would in theory bolster North Korea’s deterrent by ensuring retaliation after absorbing a nuclear attack on land.
Ballistic missile submarines would also add a new maritime threat to the North’s growing collection of solid-fuel weapons fired from land vehicles, which are being developed with an apparent aim to overwhelm missile defence systems in South Korea and Japan.
Easley said: “North Korea might be delaying its seventh nuclear test out of respect for China’s upcoming political conference that Xi Jinping is tightly scripting to extend his leadership.
“But there are limits to Pyongyang’s self-restraint.”
Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report