SEOUL – North Korea shot a ballistic missile startlingly close to Japan on Wednesday, sparking stern condemnations from Tokyo, Seoul and Washington.
If confirmed, this would constitute the first time a North Korean missile had landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone on the Sea of Japan side of the island chain. In 1998, North Korea fired a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan and into its economic zone on the Pacific Ocean side.
Wednesday’s actions were the latest apparent protest from North Korea over a decision by Seoul and Washington to bring an anti-missile battery system to South Korea.
The medium-range Rodong missile splashed down inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, within 125 miles of the country’s northeast coast, Japan’s Defense Ministry said.
In flight time, that meant the missile was only 20 or 30 seconds from Japan itself, said Euan Graham, who served as a British diplomat in Pyongyang.
“It’s a clear case of walking right up to the line and just putting a nose over it,” said Graham, now an East Asian security expert at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “It’s a provocative act.”
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. Strategic Command said they had detected two simultaneous launches of Rodong intermediate-range ballistic missiles from the North Korean launch site in the southwest of the country shortly before 8 a.m. local time Wednesday.
One appeared to explode shortly after launch, they said.
But the other appeared to have flown over the peninsula and, some 12 minutes later, to have landed 620 miles away in the waters off the Akita prefecture.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, aimed at intercepting North Korea missiles, is set to be deployed near the rural area of Seongju, some 200 miles southeast of Seoul, by the end of next year. The plan is controversial among residents in the area, many of whom fear they will become a target for North Korea.
Pyongyang has called the THAAD battery “vicious warmongering” and has threatened a nuclear strike against the site.
Meanwhile, China views the deployment as a thinly disguised attempt to keep it in check. Beijing seized on Wednesday’s launch as further proof that the United States’ plan to deploy the system was causing instability in the region.
“South Korea is putting the cart before the horse in their pursuit of national security, as the key to security lies in good neighborly and friendly relations with its neighbors, rather than a bunch of U.S.-made missiles,” the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua said in a commentary.
South Korean military officials told reporters in Seoul that Wednesday’s launches, the latest in a volley of missiles North Korea has fired in recent months, suggested Pyongyang was trying to show off its ability to target and perhaps hit even its nearby countries it deemed hostile.
After the launch of shorter-range Scud missiles last month, North Korean state media ran footage showing Kim Jong Un sitting in front of maps that put all of South Korea, right down to the southern port city of Busan, within range.
With Wednesday’s launches, Pyongyang was signaling to Tokyo that it also had the capacity to strike Japan, noted Graham of the Lowy Institute. And, although North Korea relies on the support of China, the latest act will likely set alarm bells ringing in Beijing because it would also mean the Chinese capital was in range.
Kim’s regime would almost certainly never hurl missiles towards China, but its ability to do so could increase Beijing’s rationale for developing its own missile defense system, he said.
Fears about North Korea’s technical abilities have been mounting. While some of North Korea’s recent missile launches, especially of the Musudan-type missile, appear to have been failures, analysts say that the North’s scientists are honing their technology with every test.
The progress North Korea is making might embolden the regime and encourage it to take even more incendiary action, Tokyo said in its annual defense white paper released Tuesday. North Korea appeared to be making progress in its aim to make nuclear warheads capable of being carried to the mainland United States, it said.
Among U.S. allies, there was sharp condemnation Wednesday of North Korea’s latest defiance of a United Nations ban on missile testing.
The launch was “an unforgivable act of aggression that represents a grave threat to the security of Japan,” said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. A spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry called the missile launch “a serious provocation to South Korea and the international community.”
The Pentagon urged North Korea to refrain from ratcheting up tensions in the region. It should “focus instead on taking concrete steps toward fulfilling its commitments and international obligations,” said Gary Ross, a U.S. Navy Commander.
But analysts expect North Korea to continue with missile launches and other provocations over the next few weeks, as South Korea and the United States prepare for another round of joint military exercises.
Separately, Abe promoted a hawkish politician to be defense minister during a cabinet reshuffle Wednesday, potentially inflaming tensions with Beijing, Seoul and also Pyongyang.
She is Tomomi Inada, a conservative who supports revising Japan’s pacifist constitution and who makes a habit of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, a memorial to Japan’s war dead that China and South Korea contend honors war criminals.
Fourteen Japanese who were convicted of Class A war crimes after World War II are memorialized at the shrine, along with 2 million other Japanese who died in various wars.
The bespectacled Inada is sometimes called “Japan’s Sarah Palin” because of her hardline conservative views.
She becomes the second woman to serve as defense minister, following Yuriko Koike, who briefly did the job during Abe’s first stint as prime minister in 2007. Koike was elected the first woman governor of Tokyo Sunday.