North Korea has reportedly fired two missiles into the Sea of Japan, in what is the first signal to the new administration in the United States which is reviewing its policy towards Pyongyang.
The Japanese government said on Thursday the missiles flew about 450 kilometers and landed outside the Japanese exclusive economic zone.
“The first launch in just less than a year represents a threat to peace and stability in Japan and the region and violates UN resolutions,” Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said, while noting that the projectiles were “banned ballistic missiles.”
The missile launch coincided with the start of the Olympic torch relay in Japan, which is due to host its delayed and pandemic-affected summer Games in less than four months.
Suga said he would ensure a safe and secure Olympics and “thoroughly discuss” North Korea issues, including the launches with US President Joe Biden during his visit to Washington next month.
Thursday’s missile launch, which was also confirmed by South Korea and the United States, came just days after Pyongyang test-fired several suspected cruise missiles following US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Japan and South Korea to discuss their alliance and security issues in the region.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) earlier reported at least two “unidentified projectiles” were fired into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan from North Korea’s South Hamgyong Province on the east coast.
US officials confirmed North Korea carried out a new missile launch, without offering details on the number or kind of projectile detected.
In a statement, the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) said the missile launches highlighted the threat posed by North Korea to its neighbors.
South Korean and US intelligence agencies are analyzing the data of the launch for additional information, the JCS said in a statement, with the presidential Blue House convening an emergency meeting of the national security council to discuss the launches.
Japan's coast guard has also warned ships against coming close to any fallen objects and asked them to provide information to the coast guard.
The latest launches are seen as a new challenge to Biden's efforts to engage with the North. However, Pyongyang has rebuffed any attempt by Washington to establish contact as long as it pursues a "hostile policy."
Vipin Narang, a nuclear affairs expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States said the test launches should not torpedo diplomatic efforts, but they are a reminder of the cost of the failure to secure a deal with Pyongyang.
“Every day that passes without a deal that tries to reduce the risks posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal is a day that it gets bigger and badder,” Narang said.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international relations at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, also said, “With its return to testing different types of missiles, Pyongyang is flirting with the limits of what it can get away with under UN Security Council Resolutions.”
North Korea has long been under harsh United Nations sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs. The US has spearheaded those sanctions and has imposed several rounds of its own.
The Biden administration has yet to offer a clear policy toward Pyongyang, but experts predict the new administration will likely continue the same foreign policy pursued by former president Donald Trump.
The US and South Korea held scaled-backed joint military exercises this month, infuriating North Korea, which considers the annual war games a “rehearsal for war.”
Observers had already warned that if the Biden administration moved forward with the joint exercises with South Korea, it would likely sabotage any prospect of diplomacy with North Korea in the near future.
Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un three times, but he refused to meet Pyongyang’s demand for the removal of some sanctions in return for major North Korean measures toward demilitarization.
That hampered further diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington and prompted Kim to announce an end to a moratorium on the country's missile tests.
North Korea maintains that its nuclear and missile capabilities are intended to defend the country against potential aggression characterized by regular joint war games by Seoul and Washington on the Korean Peninsula.
The two Koreas are still technically at war as a 1953 war they fought ended with a truce and not a peace treaty.
There are close to 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea.