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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea's missiles landed in Japan's EEZ: Defense minister

Move follows South's sub-launched missile test, escalating arms race on peninsula

North Korea leader Kim Jong Un attends a parade held to mark the 73rd founding anniversary of the country at Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang in this undated image supplied by the North's Korean Central News Agency on Sept. 9.   © KCNA/Reuters

TOKYO/SEOUL -- North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on Wednesday, South Korea's military said, raising regional tensions just days after the isolated nation said it tested a cruise missile.

The missiles are believed to have landed in Japan's exclusive economic zone, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters, correcting an earlier statement by the Japan Coast Guard that said the projectiles had missed the area. They would be the first North Korean missiles to land in Japan's EEZ since October 2019.

The launch of ballistic missiles "threatens the peace and security of our country and the region and is outrageous. We strongly protest and condemn it," Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo. He added that the launch violated United Nations Security Council resolutions, and instructed relevant ministries and agencies to collect and analyze information on the launches.

The launch follows South Korea's first successful underwater test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile, which was revealed last week. This made South Korea the eighth country to possess such capabilities, joining peers such as the U.S., China, Russia, the U.K., France and India. North Korea was the seventh.

Washington assessed that while North Korea's latest tests do "not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies, the missile launch highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK's illicit weapons program," according to a statement by the U.S. military's Indo-Pacific Command.

"We remain committed to a diplomatic approach to the DPRK and call on them to engage in dialogue," said a U.S State Department spokesperson, who condemned the launch. "Our commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad."

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missiles flew about 800 km with a maximum altitude of 60 km.

The firings -- the first of ballistic missiles since March -- follow Pyongyang saying it carried out successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend. Neither the U.S., Japan or South Korea have yet provided details of the missile that analysts see as possibly the country's first such weapon with a nuclear capability.

The launch came while Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, was in Tokyo for talks with Japanese and South Korean counterparts. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is also in Seoul for dialogue with his opposite number there. Denuclearization talks between North Korea and the U.S. remain stalled.

The Japanese government made a protest over the ballistic missiles to North Korea via the Beijing diplomatic route, a foreign ministry official revealed.

People in Seoul watch a news program on Monday reporting on North Korea's cruise missiles test.   © AP

North Korea appears to have resumed activities at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, the International Atomic Energy Agency said last month, painting a picture of Pyongyang continuing to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

North Korea's official KCNA news service called the cruise missile a "a strategic weapon of great significance in meeting the key target of the five-year plan for the development of the defense science and the weapon system" set forth at the Workers' Party congress early this year. Analysts say the term strategic weapon is used to describe a nuclear capable device.

Hours after the latest launch, South Korea's presidential Blue House confirmed the nation's earlier successful SLBM test. President Moon Jae-in inspected the firing at a local test center.

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said Moon's remarks that the South's new missile systems can deter North Korea are illogical and regrettable and could damage relations, reported Reuters.

She said Moon's remarks made during the test firing of a new South Korean SLBM were inappropriate and could lead to a breakdown in ties if Moon continues to "slander" the North, according to the report, which cited KCNA.

Sung Kim, U.S. special envoy for North Korea, speaks to reporters in Tokyo. (Photo by Hirofumi Takeuchi)

Prior to Wednesday's launch, U.S. special envoy Kim talked of the need for Washington, Tokyo and Seoul to maintain a strong stance against North Korea's development of weapons.

"Whatever the intention is, whether it was to send a message to Washington or whether it's as basic as them wanting to develop this capability for whatever purpose, obviously it's concerning that they are continuing to pursue these dangerous capabilities," Kim said.

"This is why it's so important for our alliance to continue to maintain the strongest possible deterrent capability," he added about the trilateral partnership.

Kim acknowledged the North Korean tests' destabilizing effect on Japan and South Korea and offered assurance that the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan had no implications regarding U.S. commitment to both allies.

"As someone who's directly involved in this effort I can assure you our senior leaders are very focused on developments in the Korean peninsula," he said.

Kim said that the U.S. would not set an arbitrary deadline for North Korea to return to negotiations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that Washington is prepared to resume talks with North Korea without preconditions.

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