SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile into the sea on Sunday, its neighbors said, stepping up tests in response to ongoing US-South Korea military exercises that it views as an attempted invasion.
The North’s continued missile tests showed it is determined not to back down despite US-South Korea military exercises, the largest of their kind in years. But many experts say the tests are also part of North Korea’s larger goal to expand its weapons arsenal, gain global recognition as a nuclear power and lift international sanctions.
The missile, fired from the North’s northwestern Tonchang region, flew across the country before landing in waters off its east coast, according to South Korean and Japanese estimates. They said the missile traveled about 800 kilometers (500 miles), suggesting the weapon could have targeted South Korea.
The top nuclear envoys of South Korea, Japan and the United States discussed the launch by phone and strongly condemned it as a provocation that threatens peace on the Korean Peninsula and the region. Seoul’s foreign ministry said they agreed to strengthen their coordination to provide a tough international response to the North’s actions.
South Korea’s military has said it will carefully continue joint military exercises with the United States and remain ready to respond “overwhelmingly” to any provocation by North Korea. As part of the exercises, the US flew long-range B-1B bombers on Sunday for joint exercises with South Korean warplanes, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said.
North Korea is highly sensitive to the deployment of B-1Bs, which are capable of carrying a huge load of conventional weapons. It responded to the February flights of B-1Bs with test missiles that showed the potential range to hit some South Korean air bases.
Japanese Deputy Defense Minister Toshiro Ino said the missile fell outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone and there were no reports of damage to ships or aircraft. He said the missile likely showed an erratic trajectory, a possible reference to North Korea’s highly maneuverable, nuclear-capable KN-23 missile, modeled after Russia’s Iskander missile.
The US Indo-Pacific Command said the latest launch did not pose an immediate threat to US territory or its allies. But it said the North’s latest launches underscore the destabilizing impact of its illegal weapons programs and that US security commitments to South Korea and Japan remain “ironclad”.
The launch was North Korea’s third round of weapons tests since the US and South Korean militaries began their joint military exercises last Monday. The exercises, which include computer simulations and field exercises, will continue until Thursday. The field exercises are the largest of their kind since 2018.
Weapons recently tested by North Korea include its longest-range Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile, which is designed to hit the US mainland. The North’s state media quoted leader Kim Jong-un as saying the ICBM launch was intended to “instill fear into enemies”.
Thursday’s launch, the North’s first ICBM fire in a month, was strongly protested by Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. It came hours before South Korean President Yun Suk-yeol flew to Tokyo to closely watch the summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
During the summit, Yun and Kishida agreed to resume their defense dialogue and further strengthen security cooperation with the United States to counter North Korea and face other challenges.
Ties between Seoul and Tokyo have fallen sharply in recent years amid issues surrounding Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.
But last year’s record missile tests by North Korea, which launched more than 70 missiles in 2022 alone, prompted Seoul and Tokyo to seek a stronger trilateral security partnership, drawing in Washington, which also wants to strengthen its alliances in Asia to better counter China’s rise. North Korea’s nuclear threats.
North Korea has missiles that put Japan within striking distance. Last October, North Korea fired a medium-range missile into northern Japan, prompting communities there to issue evacuation alerts and halt trains.
After Sunday’s launch, Kishida ordered a rapid response, including working closely with South Korea and the United States, according to Japanese Vice Defense Minister Ino.
A day before the exercise, North Korea also fired cruise missiles from a submarine. The North’s state media said the submarine-launched missile was a show of determination to respond with “extremely powerful” force to intensifying military exercises by “US imperialists and South Korean puppet forces.”
According to South Korean media reports, the US and South Korea are planning more exercises involving a US aircraft carrier later this month, after the current exercise ends. This suggests hostilities on the Korean Peninsula could last for several more weeks, as North Korea is also likely to respond to the drills with weapons tests.
Associated Press writer Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.