SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — North Korea has fired a suspected long-range ballistic missile, the South Korean military said Wednesday, days after Pyongyang threatened to down US spy planes that violated its airspace.
Relations between the two Koreas are at one of their lowest points ever, with diplomacy stalled and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un calling for increased weapons development, including tactical nukes.
In response, Seoul and Washington have ramped up security cooperation, vowing that Pyongyang would face a nuclear response and the “end” of its current government were it to ever use its nuclear weapons against the allies.
South Korea’s military “detected what was presumed to be a long-range ballistic missile fired from the Pyongyang area around 1000 (0100 GMT) toward the East Sea,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, referring to the body of water also known as the Sea of Japan.
Tokyo also confirmed the Wednesday launch, with Japan’s Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada saying North Korea had fired “at least one” suspected ballistic missile eastward.
“The ballistic missile or missiles are still flying right now… at this point, we estimate that they will fall in the Sea of Japan, outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, around 550 kilometres east of the Korean Peninsula at around 11:13 am.”
On Monday, North Korea accused a US spy plane of violating its airspace and condemned Washington’s plans to deploy a nuclear missile submarine near the Korean peninsula.
A spokesperson for the North Korean Ministry of National Defence said the United States had “intensified espionage activities beyond the wartime level”, citing “provocative” spy plane flights over eight straight days this month.
The statement, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said one reconnaissance plane intruded into North Korean airspace over the East Sea “several times”.
“There is no guarantee that such a shocking accident as the downing of the US Air Force strategic reconnaissance plane will not happen in the East Sea of Korea,” the spokesperson added.
Kim’s powerful sister Kim Yo Jong said that a US spy aircraft had violated the country’s eastern airspace twice on Monday morning, according to a separate statement.
Kim Yo Jong said North Korea would not respond directly to US reconnaissance activities outside of the country’s exclusive economic zone, but warned it would take “decisive action” if the US military crossed its maritime military demarcation line.
The United States said in April that one of its nuclear-armed ballistic submarines would visit a South Korean port for the first time in decades, without specifying an exact date.
North Korea has conducted multiple sanctions-defying launches this year, including test-firing its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile and attempting to put a military spy satellite into orbit.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has ramped up defence cooperation with Washington in response, staging joint military exercises with advanced stealth jets and long-range heavy bombers.
Yoon is set to attend a NATO summit in Lithuania this week, seeking stronger cooperation with the alliance’s members over North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threats, his office said.
“Kim Yo Jong’s bellicose statement against US surveillance aircraft is part of a North Korean pattern of inflating external threats to rally domestic support and justify weapons tests,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“Pyongyang also times its shows of force to disrupt what it perceives as diplomatic coordination against it, in this case, South Korea and Japan’s leaders meeting during the NATO summit.”
South Korea and the United States are set to start major annual joint military exercises, known as Ulchi Freedom Shield, next month.
North Korea regards such exercises as rehearsals for invasion, describing them as “frantic” drills “simulating an all-out war against” Pyongyang.