By Tom Ozimek
North Korea on Saturday fired an intercontinental ballistic missile that landed in waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, according to Japanese and South Korean officials, after Pyongyang warned that upcoming U.S.-South Korea military drills would lead to a strong response.
Japan government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters on Feb. 18 that North Korea “fired one ICBM-class ballistic missile” which flew for some 66 minutes before landing in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Yasukazu Hamada, Japan’s defence minister, said the missile’s range was 8,700 miles and so would have had the capacity to strike the United States.
The South Korean military said in a statement that intelligence sources are closely analyzing the detailed specifications of the missile and its flight.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said the ballistic missile was fired at around 5:22 p.m. from an area in Sunan, where Pyongyang’s international airport is located and where its military has conducted most of its intercontinental ballistic missile tests in recent years.
They added that the missile had been fired on a high trajectory that is normally done to avoid overflying neighboring countries.
No ‘Immediate Threat’
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command confirmed North Korea’s missile launch but said it doesn’t pose “an immediate threat” and the United States is “consulting closely” with allies, including Japan and South Korea.
“The United States condemns these actions and calls on the DPRK to refrain from any further unlawful and destabilizing acts,” the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement.
“While we have assessed that this event does not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel, or territory, or to our allies, we will continue to monitor the situation. The U.S. commitments to the defense of the ROK and Japan remain ironclad.”
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Tokyo was closely communicating with Washington and Seoul over the launch, which he described as “an act of violence that escalates provocation toward the international order.”
The missile launch came after North Korea’s Foreign Ministry on Friday threatened “unprecedently” strong action against its rivals after South Korea announced a series of military exercises with the United States with the aim of enhancing their ability to respond to the increasing threats posed by North Korea.
Pyongyang’s missile launch on Saturday marks the first since testing a short-range weapon on Jan. 1. It comes on the heels of a large military parade in the North Korean capital, during which over a dozen intercontinental ballistic missiles were put on display.
North Korea set a new record last year in weapons demonstrations, including the launch of over 70 ballistic missiles, some of which had the capacity to reach the U.S. mainland.
The country also carried out a series of launches that it claimed to be simulated nuclear attacks on South Korean and American targets. It said the launches were in response to the allies’ renewed large-scale joint military exercises, which had been reduced in scale for a number of years.
North Korea has ramped up its nuclear saber-rattling, with Pyongyang repeatedly threatening pre-emptive nuclear strikes against its southern neighbor and the United States over what it perceives as threats to its security.
The leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, has called for an “exponential increase” in the country’s nuclear capability. He called for the production of more nuclear warheads, mass production of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons, and the development of more advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles.
In a Friday statement, North Korea accused Washington and Seoul of planning over 20 rounds of military drills while denouncing its rivals as “arch-criminals deliberately disrupting regional peace and stability.”
The accusation came hours after South Korea announced that in the middle of March it would hold an 11-day computer-simulated joint training session with the United States that would reflect Pyongyang’s nuclear threats.
South Korea’s deputy minister of national defence policy, Heo Tae-keun also said that Washington and Seoul would conduct joint field exercises in March that would be greater in scale than those held in recent years.
While the allies have described U.S.-South Korea military exercises as defensive in nature, North Korea has characterized them as rehearsals for a potential invasion.
While the United States and South Korea cut down the scale and number of joint military exercises in recent years in support of former President Donald Trump’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea, both South Korea and Japan have recently sought to strengthen their respective defense postures, citing Pyongyang’s nuclear threat.
In a major departure from its post-World War II principle of a strict self-defence policy, Japan in December adopted a new national security strategy that includes cruise missiles and preemptive strikes.
And on Friday, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party approved the government’s proposal to ease limitations on the military use of weapons against unmanned aircraft that violate Japanese airspace.
Green Light to Shoot Down Spy Balloons
Japan’s Ministry of Defence on Thursday put forward a proposal that would allow Japan’s Self-Defense Force (SDF) to shoot down foreign balloons and drones that threaten the country and its citizens.
That came after the ministry revealed several days prior that it “strongly” suspected Chinese surveillance balloons had entered Japanese airspace multiple times in recent years.
Japanese authorities first announced that they were investigating past aerial incidents on Feb. 8, the same day that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States was sharing intelligence with dozens of nations after the discovery that China’s spy balloon program had targeted at least 40 countries.
“We’re doing so because the United States is not the only target of the balloon program, which has violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents,” Blinken said at the time.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Feb. 13 that the spy balloon program was connected to China’s military and had targeted the United States’ “closest allies and partners,” a designation that typically includes Japan.
Japan’s newly-approved policy would permit the use of weapons against drones and balloons that pose a hazard to civil air traffic, even if doing so does not constitute legitimate self-defense, The Yomiuri Shimbun reported.
The ministry said that it would take into account the safety of citizens and civilian aircraft flights before approving any use of weapons against unmanned aircraft.
Andrew Thornebrooke, Aldgra Fredly, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.