SEOUL, South Korea >> North Korea today fired an apparent ballistic missile off its east coast that landed in the waters of Japan’s economic zone, South Korean and Japanese officials said, the latest in a string of recent test launches as the North seeks to build nuclear-tipped ICBMs that can reach the U.S. mainland.
A statement by the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the launch came from around the eastern North Korean coastal town of Wonsan. The agency added that North Korea fired a suspected Scud-type ballistic missile that flew about 450 kilometers (280 miles).
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said what appeared to be a North Korean ballistic missile fell within Japan’s exclusive maritime economic zone. He said there was no immediate report of damage to planes or vessels in the area.
North Korea is still thought to be several years away from its goal of being able to target U.S. mainland cities with a nuclear ICBM, but each new test puts it closer to success. The North has a strong arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles that target Japan and South Korea and U.S. forces in the region, and it is working to perfect its longer-range missiles.
There was no immediate comment from North Korea’s state controlled media. But the launch followed a report from the North that said leader Kim Jong Un had watched a successful test of a new type of anti-aircraft guided weapon system. It wasn’t clear from the report when the test happened.
After the test, Kim said the weapon system’s ability to detect and track targets had “remarkably” improved and its accuracy also increased, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. KCNA cited Kim as ordering officials to mass-produce and deploy the system all over the country so as to “completely spoil the enemy’s wild dream to command the air.”
The North’s nuclear and missile programs are perhaps the biggest foreign policy challenges to the new leaders in allies Washington and Seoul.
U.S. President Donald Trump has alternated in his public statements between bellicosity and flattery. But his administration is still working to solidify a policy to deal with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
A new liberal president in Seoul, Moon Jae-in, has signaled he will be flexible in expanding civilian exchange with North Korea. But many analysts say Moon won’t likely push for any major rapprochement projects because North Korea has gone too far on its nuclear program. Monday’s missile launch was the third one by North Korea since Moon’s inauguration on May 10.
Moon called a National Security Council meeting to discuss the North’s launch.
Suga, the Japanese cabinet secretary, said, “We cannot tolerate such repeated actions from North Korea, and we have lodged a strong protest against North Korea, criticizing them in the strongest form.”
Besides its regular ballistic missile test-launches, the North carried out two nuclear tests last year — in January and September. Outside analysts believe North Korea may be able to arm some of its shorter-range missiles with nuclear warheads, though the exact state of the North’s secretive weapons program is unknown.
Moon has made tentative steps toward engaging the North by restarting stalled civilian aid and exchange programs as a way to improve strained ties.
South Korea said recently that it will allow a civic group to contact North Korea about potentially offering help in treating malaria, the first government approval on cross-border civilian exchanges since January 2016.