North Korea fires short-range ballistic missile into waters off western Japan

North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile that landed in Japan's maritime economic zone Monday, officials say.

Pyongyang has increased its test-firing of ballistic missiles over recent months

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches the test of an anti-aircraft guided weapon system in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on Sunday. (KCNA via Reuters)

North Korea's latest missile test Monday may have less to do with perfecting its weapons technology than with showing U.S. and South Korean forces in the region that it can strike them at will.

South Korean and Japanese officials said the suspected Scud-type short-range missile flew about 450 kilometres on Monday morning before landing in Japan's maritime economic zone, setting off the usual round of condemnation from Washington and the North's neighbours.

It's the latest in a string of test launches by North Korea as it seeks to build nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland, a drive that puts North Korea high on the list of foreign policy worries for Japan, Washington and Seoul.

North Korea already has an arsenal of reliable short-range missiles. While North Korean scientists could be tweaking them — for instance, developing a new solid-fuel short-range missile — the North tests these shorter-range missiles much less than it does its less dependable, longer-range missiles.

Could strike U.S. troops in South Korea

This sets up the possibility that North Korea hopes to use the test to show it can hit U.S. targets near and far and emphasize its defiance of U.S.-led pressure on its missile and nuclear programs, which has included vague threats from U.S. President Donald Trump and the arrival in Korean waters of powerful U.S. military hardware. Scuds are capable of striking U.S. troops in South Korea, for instance, and the two newly developed missiles tested earlier this month have potential ranges that include Japan, Guam and even, according to some South Korean analysts, Alaska.

The missile was launched from the coastal town of Wonsan, the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. It landed in Japan's exclusive maritime economic zone, which is set about 200 nautical miles off the Japanese coast, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said. He said there was no report of damage to planes or vessels in the area.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches the testing of a guided weapon system. Monday's launch was the third ballistic missile launch by North Korea since May 10. (KCNA via Reuters)

North Korea is still thought to be several years from its goal of being able to target U.S. mainland cities with nuclear ICBMs.

South Korea says North Korea has conducted nine ballistic missile tests this year, including one in which four missiles were launched on the same day.

'Reckless acts'

North Korea's state-controlled media had no immediate comment on Monday's test, but released a statement, without mentioning the launch, that accused Seoul and Washington of "aggravating the situation" on the Korean Peninsula by conducting joint military drills and other "reckless acts."

On Sunday, North Korea also said leader Kim Jong-un had watched a separate, successful test of a new type of anti-aircraft guided weapon system. The report didn't say when the test happened.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is seen in Seoul on May 14. Analysts say Moon won't likely push for any major rapprochement projects because North Korea has gone too far on its nuclear program. (Yonhap via AP)

The official Korean Central News Agency cited Kim as ordering officials to mass-produce and deploy the system all over the country so as to "completely spoil the enemy's wild dream to command the air."

Trump has alternated between bellicosity and flattery in his public statements about North Korea, but his administration is still working to solidify a policy on handling the North's nuclear ambitions.

3rd launch since May 10

Monday's launch was North's Korea's third ballistic missile launch since South Korean President Moon Jae-in was inaugurated on May 10. He has signalled an interest in expanding civilian exchanges with North Korea, but it's unclear if he'll be able to push anytime soon for major rapprochement while the North continues to make serious advances in its nuclear and missile programs.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that "North Korea's provocation by ignoring repeated warnings from international society is absolutely unacceptable."

Suga, the Japanese cabinet secretary, said the missile fell about 300 kilometres (north of the Oki islands in southwestern Japan and 500 kilometres west of Sado island in central Japan.

Suga said Japanese officials will discuss North Korea with a senior foreign policy adviser to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Yang Jiechi, who was scheduled to visit Japan later Monday. China is North Korea's only major ally.

Besides its regular ballistic missile test-launches, North Korea carried out two of its five nuclear tests last year — in January and September. Outside analysts believe North Korea may be able to arm some of its shorter-range missiles with nuclear warheads, though the exact state of its secretive weapons program is unknown.