SEOUL, South Korea — A medium-range ballistic missile fired Wednesday by North Korea flew about 620 miles and landed near Japan’s territorial waters, Seoul and Tokyo officials said, one of the longest flights by a North Korean missile.
The U.S. Strategic Command, meanwhile, said North Korea fired two presumed Rodong missiles simultaneously on Wednesday, not just one. The command’s statement said initial indications reveal one of the missiles exploded immediately after launch, while the second was tracked over North Korea and into the Sea of Japan.
According to the South Korean and Japanese announcements, one suspected Rodong missile lifted off from the North’s western Hwanghae province and flew across the country before falling in waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.
Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that it “strongly condemns” the missile launch because it explicitly shows the North’s intentions of being able to launch missile attacks on South Korea and neighboring countries.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said the missile landed inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, the 200-nautical-mile offshore area where a nation has sovereign rights for exploring and exploiting resources. Japanese media reported it was the first North Korean missile that has splashed down in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
“It imposes a serious threat to Japan’s security and it is unforgivable act of violence toward Japan’s security,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.
North Korea previously fired Rodong and other missiles into the sea but South Korean analysts say Wednesday’s 620 mile flight was one of the longest for a North Korean test.
Several North Korean rockets have gone farther and even over Japan. But Pyongyang called them satellite launches while Washington, Seoul and Tokyo said they were disguised tests of missile technology. After several failures, the North put its first satellite into space aboard a long-range rocket in December 2012 and conducted another successful satellite launch in February.
In June, North Korea, after a string of failures, sent another type of mid-range missile known as “Musudan” more than 870 miles high. Analysts say the high-altitude flight meant North Korea had made progress in its push to be able to strike U.S. forces throughout the region.
North Korea routinely conducts weapons tests, but the latest launch came after North Korea warned of unspecified “physical counter-actions” against a U.S. plan to deploy an advanced missile defense system in South Korea by the end of next year.
Seoul and Washington officials said they need the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system to better cope with what they call North Korea’s increasing military threats. North Korea called the system a provocation that it says is only aimed at bolstering U.S. military hegemony in the region.
On July 19, North Korea fired three ballistic missiles into the sea, according to Seoul defense officials. The North’s state media later confirmed that it fired ballistic rockets carrying trigger devices for nuclear warheads as part of simulated pre-emptive atomic attacks on South Korea.
Analyst Kim Dong-yub at Seoul’s Institute for Far East Studies said the launch appeared to be aimed at showing an ability to attack U.S. military bases in Japan, a major source of reinforcements for U.S. troops should a war break out on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea is expected to carry out more weapons launches in coming weeks to protest annual U.S.-South Korean military drills that begin later this month. North Korea describes the drills as an invasion rehearsal.
North Korea is pushing to manufacture a warhead small enough to be placed on a long-range missile that can reach the continental U.S., but South Korean defense officials say the North doesn’t yet have such a miniaturized warhead. Some civilian experts, however, believe the North has the technology to put warheads on shorter-range Rodong and Scud missiles that can strike South Korea and Japan.
North Korea is known to have an arsenal of estimated 300 Rodong missiles with a maximum range of 800 miles. The North has never flown its full range. A Rodong fired in March flew about 500 miles, while two other Rodongs launched in 2014 flew about 400 miles.
The Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea and tens of thousands of more in Japan.
Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.