North Korea fired four banned ballistic missiles toward Japan early Monday, drawing international condemnation and heightening concerns about the rapid pace of Pyongyang’s illegal missile program.
Analysts told VICE News the tests could be intended to send a message that North Korea will respond to any pre-emptive measures which seek to hamper its development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The latest move from North Korea came as the U.S. and South Korea carry out joint military exercises seen by Pyongyang as a provocation.
North Korea’s development of a long-range nuclear missile capable of striking the United States looms large over the Trump administration. The issue has prompted U.S. national security officials to consider mounting pre-emptive strikes on North Korean launch sites to thwart the program, the New York Times reported Saturday.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in January that the country was close to test-firing an ICBM, although experts are unclear on how true that is, and some believe the country could be years away from developing technology capable of striking the U.S. with a nuclear warhead.
Here’s what we know about Monday’s launches.
- Four projectiles were fired shortly after 7.30 a.m. local time about 1,000 kilometers (about 620 miles) toward the Sea of Japan, with three landing in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
- The missiles landed as close as 300 kilometers west of Japan’s Akita prefecture, a Japanese government spokesman said.
- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the missiles, fired from a launch site in Tongchang-ri near North Korea’s border with China, demonstrated “a new level of threat.” “North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities have really improved, and they are becoming more difficult to predict.”
- The launches were widely condemned, with even Pyongyang’s closest ally, China, saying it opposed the action. South Korea’s acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn vowed to press ahead with controversial plans to install a U.S. missile defense system on its territory this year, despite Beijing’s strident opposition.
North Korea, which is banned from conducting any missile or nuclear tests by the U.N., is yet to make any claims about what type of missiles were fired. The country has regularly test-fired missiles in recent years – last year it launched 25 missiles and two nuclear tests as Kim pressed ahead with developing a nuclear-equipped ballistic missile at unprecedented pace.
But U.S. and South Korean officials said there were no indications the latest tests involved ICBMs – a weapon the U.S. fears could be eventually used to strike its soil.
Leonid Petrov, a Korea specialist at Australian National University, told VICE News that it did not appear that the launches deployed any technology that had not been seen before, unlike a test last month in which a new solid-fuel medium-range ballistic missile, the Pukguksong-2, was debuted. “It was the timing that was important, not the scientific novelty,” he said, adding that the tests came as Washington and Seoul were conducting annual joint military exercises.
Pyongyang, which sees the annual drills as preparations for an invasion, issued a warning over the Foal Eagle joint military exercises Friday; during last year’s drills, it conducted multiple missile tests and claimed it could place nuclear warheads on its weapons.
“These tests are sending a signal to the world and the the United States that they are prepared to defend themselves, that they’re in a state of constant preparedness,” said Petrov.
Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at South Korea’s Troy University, told VICE News besides the joint military exercises, the latest launches could also be intended to send a defiant signal to other audiences, at a time when Pyongyang was aggrieved over a range of issues.
“This is a way for North Korea to demonstrate that they will not be pushed around,” he said.
The launches will also ramp up tension between Pyongyang and Beijing, a long-time ally of the internationally isolated regime which is becoming increasingly impatient with North Korea’s destabilizing actions on the world stage. Last month, China took the significant step of banning coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year as part of U.N. sanctions over its missile program, severing an important economic lifeline for Pyongyang.
The tests come at a particularly sensitive time for Beijing as the ruling Communist Party’s National People’s Congress convenes for its annual gathering, a carefully stage-managed political showpiece during which political sensitivities are heightened and distractions are especially unwelcome.
Plans to install a U.S.-made and operated missile defense system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in South Korea by the end of the year have led Pyongyang to warn that the peninsula could be brought “to the brink of nuclear war.” China has also strenuously objected to the system, fearing it will allow the U.S. to monitor its military, and in recent weeks has taken steps to punish Seoul for allowing the plan to proceed; North Korea’s missile launches will only serve to undermine Beijing’s objections to THAAD, further alienating Pyongyang’s most important ally.
Pinkston said the launches were also taking place amid swirling talk of a potential pre-emptive U.S. strike on the country to thwart its ICBM development. The New York Times reported Saturday that the Pentagon had pursued a cyber warfare campaign over the past three years intended to disrupt North Korea’s missile program, and a large number of Pyongyang’s rockets had subsequently malfunctioned. But according to interviews with officials in the Obama and Trump administrations, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs were proving tougher to thwart than expected.
“I think these tests are a signal to show ‘we can launch multiple missiles in retaliation’ to deter any actions that could possibly be taken against an ICBM test,” said Pinkston.
The launches also follow South Korea’s announcement that it is quadrupling its reward for North Korean defectors who can provide them with classified military intelligence, raising the payment to 1 billion won ($860,000), CNN reported Sunday.