A ballistic missile fired from a North Korean submarine flew about 500km (310 miles), the longest distance achieved by the North for such a weapon, Seoul officials said, putting all of South Korea – and possibly parts of Japan – within its striking distance.
North Korea already has a variety of land-based missiles that can hit South Korea and Japan, including US military bases in those countries.
But its development of reliable submarine-launched missiles would add weapons that are harder to detect before lift-off.
South Korea’s military condemned the launch as an “armed protest” by North Korea against the start of annual South Korean-US military drills, but acknowledged it was an improvement over previous tests of similar missiles.
“North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats are not imaginary threats any longer, but they’re now becoming real threats,” South Korean President Park Geun-hye said of the launch. “Those threats are coming closer each moment.”
The missile, fired from a submarine off the eastern North Korean coastal town of Sinpo, reached into Japan’s air defence identification zone, according to Seoul and Tokyo officials. The US Strategic Command said it tracked the launch of the presumed KN-11 missile into the Sea of Japan.
Its 500km flight puts most of South Korea within its range if it is fired near the two countries’ border.
Missiles of such capability could also potentially strike parts of Japan, including US military bases on the island of Okinawa, considering the operational range of North Korea’s Sinpo-class submarines, which can move about 1,000 km (620 miles) underwater at a time, said analyst Kim Dong-yub at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies.
North Korea fired two missiles from submarines earlier this year, but South Korean defence officials believe they exploded in midair after flying fewer than 30 km (18 miles).
The launch was the latest in a series of tests this year by North Korea, which is pushing to acquire reliable weapons capable of striking targets as far away as the continental US.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the launch an “impermissible and outrageous act” that poses a grave threat to Japan.
The US Strategic Command statement said it did not pose a threat to North America, but the US military “remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations”.
The Foreign Ministry of China, North Korea’s last major ally, called for all sides to avoid actions that increase tensions.