March 6, 2017
North Korea fired four missiles into the Sea of Japan on Monday, according to officials in Seoul and Tokyo, in a move likely to escalate tensions that are already running high in the region.
One of the currently unidentified projectiles could be an intercontinental ballistic missile, said a South Korean military official without providing further details. If confirmed, such a launch would mark a new phase in Pyongyang’s programme to develop long-range, nuclear-capable missiles.
In January, Pyongyang announced it was able to launch a long-range missile, capable of hitting the US, whenever it chose. The country has never proven such capabilities, but the remarks elicited a rebuke from President Donald Trump. “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. It won’t happen!” the US president tweeted at the time.
The White House last month started a comprehensive review of North Korea policy — a move that came after Barack Obama had told his successor that the regime in Pyongyang would be his most immediate overseas challenge.
The consensus view among North Korea experts in Washington is that Pyongyang will develop the capability to hit the US mainland with a nuclear-armed missile before Mr Trump finishes his first term in office. But the Pentagon is already prepared for the possibility that North Korea has already reached that milestone. In recent years, US intelligence has frequently underestimated the progress that North Korea has made towards its goal.
Last month, James Mattis, US defence secretary, warned North Korea against using nuclear weapons. During a visit to Seoul, Mr Mattis stressed that the US would react to any such use with “overwhelming” force.
The New York Times reported on Saturday that the US had increased the frequency of various kinds of cyber attacks on North Korea in a bid to sabotage its missile programme — much as it did previously with Iran and its nuclear programme. But the newspaper said there was an internal debate among experts over whether the programme had been successful. North Korea tested more than 20 missiles, and two nuclear devices, last year.
North Korea has dominated headlines in recent weeks after the high-profile murder of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of the country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un.
The killing in Kuala Lumpur international airport came just a day after Pyongyang launched an intermediate-range missile into the Sea of Japan in what analysts saw as a carefully calibrated test of the new US administration.
The latest tests occurred at about 7:30am local time. At least one of the missiles was launched from the Dongchang-ri long-range missile site and flew across the country before splashing down in the Sea of Japan.
Pyongyang warned last week that it would conduct more missile tests in response to the ongoing Foal Eagle military drills between Seoul and Washington.
“New types of strategic weapons will soar,” said a report in the Rodong Shinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling party.
The South Korean government responded by convening a National Security Council session early on Monday morning.
Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan, condemned North Korea after officials confirmed three of the missiles landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, an area stretching up to 200 nautical miles, or roughly 370km, from a country’s coastline.
“This is clear evidence that North Korea has become a new threat. North Korea has already claimed that this is a new type of missile, so we are analysing with great interest,” Mr Abe told reporters, adding Tokyo had already strongly protested to Pyongyang.
North Korea is believed to have landed a missile in the same area for the first time in August of last year.
The Pentagon said it was assessing the situation.
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