SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea fired a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile that landed near Japanese territorial waters Friday, its neighbors said, the second such major weapons test this month that shows its determination to perfect weapons systems targeting the U.S. mainland.
The launch was the latest in a barrage of weapons tests that North Korea has conducted in recent months in response to what it calls U.S. hostility. Some experts say the North is able to perform such a spree of weapons tests partly because China and Russia have opposed U.S. moves to toughen sanctions on North Korea.
The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said it detected the suspected ICBM launch from North Korea's capital region at 10:15 a.m. and the weapon flew toward the North's eastern coast across the country. The statement said South Korea's military bolstered its surveillance of North Korea and maintains readiness in close coordination with the United States.
The Japanese Defense Ministry also initially identified the weapon as an ICBM-class ballistic missile. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, visiting Bangkok to attend a regional summit, told reporters it was believed to have landed at sea inside Japan's exclusive economic zone west of Hokkaido, Japan's main northern island.
If confirmed, it would be North Korea’s first ICBM launch in about two weeks. Experts said an ICBM launched by North Korea on Nov. 3 failed to fly its intended flight and fell into the ocean after a stage separation.
The Nov. 3 test was believed to have involved a developmental ICBM called Hwasong-17. North Korea has two other types of ICBM — Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 — and their test-launches in 2017 proved they could potentially reach parts of the U.S. homeland.
The Hwasong-17 has a longer potential range than the others and its huge size suggests it’s designed to carry multiple nuclear warheads to defeat missile defense systems. Some experts say the Nov. 3 test showed some technological progress in the development of the Hwasong-17, given that in its earlier test in March, the missile exploded soon after liftoff.
“North Korea has been repeatedly firing missiles this year at an unprecedented frequency and is significantly escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamad told reporters.
South Korea’s presidential office said it convened an emergency security meeting to discuss the North Korean launch.
North Korea had halted weapons launches for about a week before it fired a short-range ballistic missile on Thursday.
Before Thursday’s launch, the North’s foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, threatened to launch “fiercer” military responses to the U.S. bolstering its security commitment to its allies South Korea and Japan.
Choe was referring to President Joe Biden’s recent trilateral summit with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on the sidelines of a regional gathering in Cambodia. In their joint statement, the three leaders strongly condemned North Korea’s recent missile tests and agreed to work together to strengthen deterrence. Biden reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea and Japan with a full range of capabilities, including its nuclear arms.
Choe didn’t say what steps North Korea could take but said that “the U.S. will be well aware that it is gambling, for which it will certainly regret.”
Pyongyang sees the U.S. military presence in the region as proof of its hostility toward North Korea. It has said its recent series of weapons launches were its response to what it called provocative military drills between the United States and South Korea.
There have been concerns that North Korea might conduct its first nuclear test in five years as its next major step toward bolstering its military capability against the United States and its allies.
North Korea has been under multiple rounds of U.N. sanctions over its previous nuclear and missile tests. But no fresh sanctions have been applied this year though it has conducted dozens of ballistic missile launches, which are banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions.
That's possible because China and Russia, two of the U.N. council's veto-wielding members, oppose new U.N. sanctions. Washington is locked in a strategic competition with Beijing and in a confrontation with Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.