SEOUL — North Korea fired two medium-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Sunday, launching missiles potentially capable of reaching Japan, days after Tokyo vowed to double its military spending to help guard against the growing threats from China and North Korea.
The launches were the first by the North since the country fired its newly developed intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-17, on Nov. 18.
The two missiles were launched from Tongchang-ri, where the North’s state media said its leader, Kim Jong-un, watched a ground test of a solid-fuel ICBM booster rocket, the first of its kind in the country, on Thursday.
It was unclear whether the missiles launched on Sunday had anything to do with solid-fuel missile engine technologies the North has been testing. Most of North Korea’s ballistic missiles use liquid fuel. The country has been trying to switch to solid fuel, which makes missiles easier to transport and faster to launch, according to experts.
On Monday, North Korea also said it had launched a rocket as part of its preparations to deploy a military reconnaissance satellite by April, and its state-run Korean Central News Agency released aerial photos that it said had been taken by a camera mounted on the rocket. North Korea made similar claims when it launched what the United States and South Korea called a ballistic missile off its east coast on Feb. 27 and March 5. But those earlier launches turned out to be rocket tests in preparation for a series of ICBM launches, including those that took place on March 24, Nov. 3 and Nov. 18.
North Korea’s Missile Tests
The two North Korean missiles fired on Sunday flew only 310 miles to the east before falling in waters between North Korea and Japan, the South Korean military said. But it said the missiles were launched at deliberately steep angles so they would fly shorter distances than they were designed to. South Korea classified them as medium-range ballistic missiles that usually fly 620 to 1,860 miles.
Such missiles, when fired from North Korea, would reach most or all of Japan. Any future conflict on the Korean Peninsula could involve Japan, where the United States keeps a military presence. North Korea flaunted its ability to launch ballistic missiles at Japan when it fired missiles that flew over Japan — in 2017 and again in October.
Japan lodged a protest about Sunday’s launches with North Korea via its embassy in Beijing, Japan’s senior vice defense minister, Toshiro Ino, told reporters, according to the Kyodo news agency.
The North’s missile tests came two days after Japan updated its national security strategy for the first time in nine years, citing the growing threats from China, North Korea and Russia and vowing to double the money earmarked for military spending.
Its new buildup plans called for the officially pacifist Japan to acquire counterstrike abilities, including missiles that could be used to target bases in enemy territory in response to an attack.
Japan hopes to obtain around 1,000 missiles, starting with U.S.-made Tomahawks before eventually moving to its own weapon systems. Its new national security documents called North Korea’s recent military activities an “imminent threat.”
North Korea has launched at least 90 ballistic and other missiles this year, more than in any previous year, even though a series of resolutions from the United Nations Security Council bans the country from developing or testing ballistic missile or nuclear weapons technologies.