North Korea launched two ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan on Thursday, Japan’s prime minister said, fuelling tensions ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
UN Security Council resolutions ban North Korea from testing ballistic missiles and if the launch is confirmed it would represent a new challenge to President Joe Biden’s efforts to engage with Pyongyang.
The missile launches highlight the threat North Korea’s illicit weapons programme poses to its neighbours and the international community, the US Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement on Thursday.
The Japanese government said one missile flew about 450km and landed outside the Japanese exclusive economic zone, indicating it was a short-range missile.
“The first launch in just less than a year represents a threat to peace and stability in Japan and the region,” Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told public broadcaster NHK.
The launches coincided with the start of the Olympic torch relay in Japan on Thursday, beginning a four-month countdown to the summer Games in Tokyo which were delayed from 2020 due to the pandemic.
Suga said he would ensure a safe and secure Olympics and “thoroughly discuss” North Korea issues including the launches with Biden during his visit to Washington next month.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff earlier reported at least two “unidentified projectiles” were fired into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan from North Korea.
“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,” Vipin Narang, a nuclear affairs expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told Reuters.
Biden’s diplomatic overtures to North Korea have gone unanswered, and Pyongyang says it will not engage until Washington drops hostile policies, including carrying out military drills with South Korea.
In early 2018, North Korea announced a moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and ICBMs, though it says it no longer feels bound by that after negotiations with the Trump administration faltered.
According to independent UN sanctions monitors, Pyongyang has continued to develop its nuclear and missile programmes throughout 2020, helping fund them with about US$300 million stolen through cyber hacks.