North Korea fires projectile into sea off east coast, South Korean military says

North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast on Wednesday, South Korea's military said, ahead of a summit between U.S. and Chinese leaders who are set to discuss Pyongyang's arms programme.

Launch comes as Trump, China's Xi Jinping set to meet this week to discuss the region

North Korea leader Kim Jong-un visits Sohae Space Centre in Cholsan County, North Pyongan province for the testing of a missile on April 9, 2016. South Korea's military said its neighbour nation fired an 'unidentified projectile' early Wednesday local time, just as leaders from the U.S. and China are to meet to discuss the region later this week. (Reuters)

North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast on Wednesday, South Korea's military said, ahead of a summit between U.S. and Chinese leaders who are set to discuss Pyongyang's arms programme.

The missile flew about 60 km from its launch site at Sinpo, a port city on the North's east coast, the South Korea's Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. Sinpo is home to a North Korean submarine base.

The launch comes just a day before the start of a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping, where talks about adding pressure on the North to drop its arms development will take centre stage.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed the matter briefly in a written statement Tuesday evening.

"North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile," he said. "The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment."

"The launch took place possibly in consideration of the U.S.-China summit, while at the same time it was to check its missile capability," a South Korean official told Reuters about the military's initial assessment of the launch.

Hua Chunying, foreign ministry spokesperson for China, ruled out the chance of a link between the launch and the summit, saying, "I can't see any certain connection between these two things."

The missile was fired at a high angle and reached an altitude of 189 km, the official added. Any launch of objects using ballistic missile technology is a violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, seen with China Foreign Minister Wang Yi on March 18, has had tough talk for North Korea in his first weeks on the job, but on Tuesday night released a terse and cryptic statement. (Lintao Zhang/AFP/Getty Images)

The North has defied the ban, saying it infringes its sovereign rights to self defence and the pursuit of space exploration.

The launch drew swift condemnation from Japan, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying further provocative action was possible.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga described the launch as "extremely problematic" and said Tokyo had lodged a strong protest.

South Korea's foreign ministry also condemned the launch as a blunt challenge to a series of UN Security Council resolutions targeting North Korea's nuclear and missile programme. Seoul called a National Security Council meeting and vowed to respond strongly in case of further provocations.

Intercontinental threat

The U.S. and South Korean militaries said initial assessments indicated the launch was of a KN-15 medium-range ballistic missile, which would be the same kind North Korea test-launched in February.

North Korea failed in an attempt to launch a ballistic missile two weeks ago from its east coast. Earlier in March, it fired four missiles towards Japan, some of which came as close as 300 km to its coast.

The reclusive state has also conducted two nuclear weapons tests since January 2016.

Pyongyang tested a new type of medium- to long-range ballistic missile in February, which it later said was an upgraded, extended-range version of its submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

Visitors sit in front of the TV screen showing a news program reporting about North Korea's missile firing, at Seoul Train Station early Wednesday. (Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press)

North Korea has carried out several SLBM tests near Sinpo.

"While it is entirely possible it was the land-based KN-15, it very well could have been a test of their SLBM system that was conducted on land," said Dave Schmerler, an expert at the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

The North is believed to be developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can hit the United States and its leader, Kim Jong-un, has vowed to test-launch one at any time.

Experts and officials in the South and the United States believe Pyongyang is still some time away from mastering all the technology needed for an operational ICBM system, such as re-entry of the atmosphere and subsequent missile guidance.

Trump wants China to do more to exert its economic influence over unpredictable Pyongyang to restrain its nuclear and missile programmes.

Trump and Xi are to meet on Thursday and Friday at Trump's Mar-a-Lago retreat on the Atlantic coast in Palm Beach, Florida.

It will be their first face-to-face meeting since Trump took office on Jan. 20, and trade and security issues are to figure prominently in their talks.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Trump was quoted as saying Washington was ready to address the North Korean threat alone, if need be.

Trump does not plan to give in to Chinese pressure for the United States to withdraw its THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea, which Beijing considers destabilizing.

With files from CBC News