South Korea's military says North Korea has test-fired a handful of "unknown projectiles" off its west coast into its east coast waters, further rattling an already uncertain situation on the Korean peninsula under ongoing political drift in Seoul and a new American administration.
The projectiles were launched from near one of the North's known missile bases of Tongchang-ri at 7:36 a.m. local time, or 5:36 p.m. Sunday (EST). South Korea believes at least one of the missiles flew 1,000 km, or about 620 miles. That's twice the distance as the North's most recent missile test, in February.
"North Korea has ignored South Korea and the international community's constant warnings," said Hwang Kyo-ahn, South Korea's acting president, in a statement. "This shows the North's nuclear and missile provocations are a real and imminent threat to our people's safety."
Japan's government says it counted four missiles landing in the Sea of Japan, the body of water between Korea and Japan. It says three of them fell in Japan's exclusive economic zone.
"Launching missiles at this time shows clearly that North Korea has become a new menace for Japan," said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, before saying he will head to a meeting of the Japanese National Security Council later today.
The U.S. military also said it detected the launch. U.S. Strategic Command spokesman Lt. Col. Martin O'Donnell said U.S. forces "remain vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and are fully committed to working closely with our Republic of Korea and Japanese allies to maintain security."
These missile tests are banned by the U.N. Security Council, but North Korea frequently flouts the rules. Monday's test marks the second such firing of 2017. Last year, it fired missiles 24 times, launched a rocket (largely viewed as a trial for an intercontinental ballistic missile) in February and tested nuclear devices twice.
Longtime military analyst Daniel Pinkston, lecturer in international relations at Troy University, says he is concerned not only by the missile tests but also the recent assassination of leader Kim Jong Un's half-brother in Malaysia, using a banned nerve agent. Malaysian authorities blame North Korea for his death.
"If they don't pay a price for this behavior," Pinkston said, "and I think they should pay a high price, then they will continue with it."
The latest test comes against a backdrop that's both routine — annual March military drills staged by the U.S. and South Korea that Pyongyang sees as war prep — and unfamiliar. The new Trump administration's policy on North Korea is unclear, at best, and South Korea is in a leadership vacuum as an acting president runs day-to-day affairs in the country. The elected president, Park Geun-hye, was impeached by lawmakers on Dec. 9 and stripped of her powers. Whether she keeps her job is up to a court to decide, likely before the end of this month.
Jihye Lee contributed to this post from Seoul. Akane Saiki contributed from Tokyo.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
For a country not currently fighting a full-blown war, North Korea fires an awful lot of missiles. Last night, North Korea's military fired a series of missiles into the sea near Japan. NPR's Elise Hu reports.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Just after dawn in East Asia, North Korea launched four missiles from near its border with China. South Korea's military said they flew about 1,000 kilometers, or 620 miles. Three of the missiles landed in waters which are part of Japan's exclusive economic zone.
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PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: (Foreign language spoken).
HU: "Launching ballistic missiles at this time shows clearly that North Korea has become a new menace for Japan," said Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister. Japan, South Korea and the U.S. State Department condemned the launch but that these kinds of international rules-breaking tests have become common is the biggest concern among North Korea watchers.
DANIEL PINKSTON: Recently, we've seen a regime that is willing to accept greater risks.
HU: Longtime military analyst Daniel Pinkston, who teaches at Troy University, says it's not just the missile and nuclear tests concerning him. It's also the recent assassination of leader Kim Jong Un's half brother in Malaysia, using a banned nerve agent.
PINKSTON: In my personal view, if they do not pay a price for this behavior - and I think they should pay a high price - then they will continue with it.
HU: What neighbors and the U.S. will do next is unclear. North Korea is already under heavy sanctions. The young Donald Trump administration has yet to put out its policy, and South Korea is stuck in a leadership vacuum. The South Korean president was impeached in December and is awaiting a court verdict on whether she's removed for good. All of this as North Korea steadily pushes ahead with its missile program. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.
(SOUNDBITE OF THINK DIFFERENTLY'S "LYRICAL SWORDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.