North Korea launched a short-range ballistic missile into the sea on Sunday, its neighbors said, stepping up test activities in response to ongoing US-South Korean military exercises that they see as an invasion rehearsal.

The North’s continued missile tests showed its determination not to back down despite the US-South Korea drills, which are the largest of their kind in years. But many experts say the tests are also part of North Korea’s larger goal of expanding its weapons arsenal, winning global recognition as a nuclear-armed state and getting international sanctions lifted.

The missile, fired from the northwestern Tongchangri area, flew across the country before landing in waters off its east coast, according to South Korean and Japanese assessments. They said the missile traveled a distance of about 800 kilometers (500 miles), a range that suggests the weapon could target South Korea.

Read more:

North Korea stresses need to “strike fear” over US-South Korean ICBM test drills

The story continues below the ad

The top nuclear envoys from South Korea, Japan and the United States discussed the launch by phone and strongly condemned it as a provocation that threatens peace on the Korean Peninsula and the region. They agreed to strengthen their coordination to provide a firm international response to the North’s actions, according to Seoul’s foreign ministry.

South Korea’s military said it will thoroughly continue the rest of the joint exercises with the United States and maintain a readiness to “overwhelmingly” respond to any provocations from North Korea. As part of the drills, the US on Sunday flew long-range B-1B bombers for joint training with South Korean fighter jets, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.

North Korea is highly sensitive to the deployment of the B-1B, which can carry a huge conventional weapons payload. It responded to the February flights of B-1Bs by test-firing missiles that showed potential ranges to hit some air bases in South Korea.

Japan’s Deputy Defense Minister Toshiro Ino said the missile landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone and there were no reports of damage to ships or aircraft. He said the missile likely showed an erratic trajectory, a possible reference to North Korea’s highly maneuverable, nuclear-capable KN-23 missile that was modeled on Russia’s Iskander missile.

Click to play the video:

North Korea conducts second ballistic missile test in three days

The US Indo-Pacific Command said the latest launch does not pose an immediate threat to US territory or its allies. But it said the North’s recent launches highlight “the destabilizing effect of its illicit” weapons program and that the US security commitment to South Korea and Japan remains “ironclad”.

The story continues below the ad

The launch was the North’s third round of weapons tests since the US and South Korean militaries began their joint military exercises on Monday. The exercises, which include computer simulations and field exercises, are to last until Thursday. The field exercises are the largest of their kind since 2018.

The weapons North Korea recently tested include its longest-range Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile designed to hit the US mainland. The North’s state media quoted leader Kim Jong Un as saying the ICBM launch was meant to “strike fear into the enemies.”

Thursday’s launch, the North’s first ICBM launch in a month, drew strong protests from Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. It was carried out just hours before South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol flew to Tokyo for a closely watched summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

During the summit, Yoon and Kishida agreed to resume their defense dialogue and further strengthen security cooperation with the United States to counter North Korea and address other challenges.

Ties between Seoul and Tokyo suffered a major setback in recent years due to problems stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula.

Read more:

North Korea says it tested long-range cruise missiles as rivals mounted military exercises

But North Korea’s record run of missile tests last year — it launched more than 70 missiles in 2022 alone — pushed Seoul and Tokyo to seek stronger trilateral security partnerships involving Washington, which also wants to strengthen its alliances in Asia to better deal with China’s rise and North Korea’s nuclear threat.

The story continues below the ad

North Korea has missiles that put Japan within striking distance. Last October, North Korea fired an intermediate-range missile over northern Japan, forcing communities there to issue evacuation alerts and halt trains.

After Sunday’s launch, Kishida ordered a swift response, including close cooperation with South Korea and the United States, according to Ino, the Japanese vice defense minister.

A day before the drills started, North Korea also fired cruise missiles from a submarine. The North’s state media said the submarine-launched missile was a demonstration of its determination to respond with “overwhelmingly powerful” force to the intensified military maneuvers by “the US imperialists and the South Korean puppet forces.”

According to South Korean media reports, the US and South Korea are planning more training involving a US aircraft carrier later this month after their current exercises end. This suggests that hostilities on the Korean Peninsula could continue for a few more weeks as North Korea is also likely to respond to these exercises with weapons tests.

© 2023 The Canadian Press