North Korea launched a short-range ballistic missile toward the sea on Sunday, testing activities that appear to be in response to ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills.
The North continuing its missile tests shows the country is not deterred by the U.S.-South Korea exercises it views as an invasion rehearsal, although many experts suggest the tests may also be part of the North’s larger goal to expand its weapons arsenal, win international recognition as a nuclear state and have international sanctions lifted.
The missile, which was launched from the North’s northwestern Tongchangri area, flew across the country and landed in the sea off its east coast, according to South Korean and Japanese assessments, which reported that the missile traveled a distance of about 500 miles. This range suggests the missile could target South Korea.
The chief nuclear envoys from South Korea, Japan and the U.S. strongly condemned the missile launch as a provocation threatening peace on the Korean Peninsula and in the region. They agreed in a phone call to strengthen their coordination to send a firm international response to the North’s testing activity, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.
South Korea’s military said its joint drills with the U.S. will proceed and it will be prepared to respond to any provocation by the North. During drills on Sunday, the U.S. flew at least one long-range B-1B bomber for joint aerial training with South Korean warplanes, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
North Korea is wary about the deployment of B-1Bs, which are capable of carrying a large conventional weapons payload. The country had responded to B-1B flights in February by test-launching missiles to ranges that showed they can reach some military airbases in South Korea.
According to Japanese Vice Defense Minister Toshiro Ino, the missile landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone. He said there were no reports of damage to vessels or aircraft in the area and that the missile likely showed an irregular trajectory, a possible reference to North Korea’s highly maneuverable, nuclear-capable KN-23 missile.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said Sunday’s launch does not pose an immediate threat to the U.S. territory or its allies. However, it did say the North’s recent launches highlight “the destabilizing impact of its unlawful” weapons programs and that the U.S. security commitment to South Korea and Japan remains “ironclad.”
The launch was the North’s third round of weapons tests since the U.S. and South Korea began their joint military drills on Monday. The drills include computer simulations and field exercises and are expected to continue until Thursday. The joint exercises are the biggest of their kind since 2018.
North Korea recently tested weapons including its longest-range Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile designed to strike the U.S. mainland. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the launch was conducted to “strike fear into the enemies,” according to state media.
A launch on Thursday, the North’s first ICBM firing in a month, prompted strong opposition from the South Korean, Japanese and U.S. governments, as it was conducted just hours before South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol flew to Tokyo for a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
Yoon and Kishida agreed during the summit to resume conversations about defense and further strengthen security cooperation with the U.S. to counter North Korea.
North Korea has missiles that put Japan within striking distance. In October, North Korea fired an intermediate-range missile over northern Japan forcing communities to issue evacuation alerts and stop trains.
Kishida issued a response to North Korea’s launch on Sunday that includes working closely with South Korea and the U.S.
The North had also fired cruise missiles from a submarine the day before the military exercises began. According to North Korean state media, those missiles were a demonstration of its commitment to respond with “overwhelming powerful” force to the military drills by the U.S. and South Korea.
The U.S. and South Korea are planning to carry out more training involving a U.S. aircraft carrier later this month after their current exercises conclude, which suggests North Korea would likely respond to those drills with additional weapons tests.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.