North Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile early Thursday, the same day leaders from the two US allies were due to meet in Tokyo for the first such summit in 12 years.
The missile was fired into the waters off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula early Thursday morning local time, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and Japan’s Defense Ministry.
North Korea later announced that it had launched an Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) under leader Kim Jong Un’s guidance, state media KCNA reported Friday, adding that the missile reached a maximum altitude of 6,045km, had a flight range of 1,000.2km, and flew for over an hour.
North Korea last tested a long-range missile on February 18, and Thursday’s is the fourth intercontinental ballistic missile launch in less than one year.
Images released by North Korea on Friday appeared to show Kim overseeing the latest missile launch on a wall of TV screens accompanied by an unnamed young girl, believed to be his daughter Kim Ju Ae.
The launch followed a flurry of tests this week – on Sunday, North Korea fired two cruise missiles from a submarine and the next day launched two short-range ballistic missiles from South Hwanghae Province.
The tests coincide with springtime joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea – the biggest war games the two allies have staged in five years. Ahead of the 11-day Freedom Shield exercises, North Korea had threatened to take the “toughest counteraction against the most vicious plots of the US and its followers.”
The timing also coincides with the imminent arrival of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in Japan for a summit his office has hailed as “an important milestone” in the development of bilateral relations.
The two East Asian neighbors have a long history of acrimony, dating back to Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula a century ago.
The two countries normalized relations in 1965, but unresolved historical disputes have continued to fester and hostility lingered.
More recently, their fraught relations have undermined efforts by the United States to present a united front against North Korea – and the increasing assertiveness of China.
Before departing for Tokyo, Yoon told international media on Wednesday “there is an increasing need for Korea and Japan to cooperate in this time of a polycrisis,” citing escalating North Korean nuclear and missile threats and the disruption of global supply chains.
“We cannot afford to waste time while leaving strained Korea-Japan relations unattended,” Yoon said.