[SEOUL] Japan moved to the highest possible alert level after North Korea fired four ballistic missiles simultaneously into nearby waters, the latest provocation from Kim Jong Un's regime.
Three of the missiles fell into Japan's exclusive economic zone, with one dropping about 350 kilometres west of the nation's northern Akita prefecture, government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters after a meeting of Japan's National Security Council. Authorities were still analysing the type of missile launched, he said.
The launches "clearly show that this is a new level of threat" from North Korea, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told lawmakers in Tokyo. American officials held phone calls afterward with counterparts in Japan and South Korea, which rely on the US for security.
While North Korea routinely test-fires missiles - including more than two dozen last year - the timing of these launches is particularly sensitive. Tensions have escalated in recent weeks between China and South Korea over American plans to deploy a missile-defense system known as Thaad on the peninsula, part of measures to thwart Kim from gaining the ability to strike the continental US with a nuclear warhead.
The launches also come as South Korea and the US undertake annual military drills that Pyongyang has called a prelude to an invasion, and right after the start of the National People's Congress in Beijing - a gathering aimed at showcasing President Xi Jinping's command over foreign and domestic affairs.
Timeline of North Korea's missile launches and nuclear tests. Long-time allies China and North Korea had a rare public spat last month after Beijing banned coal imports last month after the death of Mr Kim's half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in a Malaysia airport. Beijing accounts for more than 70 per cent of its neighbour's trade and provides food and energy aid.
The missiles, launched early Monday from the country's north-west, flew around 1,000 kilometres into the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, Roh Jae-Cheon, spokesman for South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Seoul. There was a "low chance" the projectiles were intercontinental ballistic missiles, he said.
Kim Young-Woo, a South Korean lawmaker and chairman of parliament's National Defense Committee who was briefed by the JCS, said that the projectile looks similar to the Pukguksong-2 missile that North Korea test-fired last month.
"It seems like the North lowered the angle to aim longer in distance this time as part of its attempts to test it in various ways," Mr Kim said by phone, adding that he plans to convene his committee at 3pm.
Since taking power about five years ago, North Korea's Mr Kim has fired dozens of missiles and conducted three nuclear tests in defiance of a United Nations ban on his weapons development. In January, he said his country was in the final stages of preparations to test-fire an ICBM, prompting US President Donald Trump to retort on Twitter: "It won't happen!"
The yen reversed an earlier decline and gained 0.18 per cent against the US dollar. The Topix index of Japanese shares fell 0.18 per cent, while South Korea's benchmark stock gauge was up 0.16 per cent.
Seoul's decision to deploy the Thaad missile-defence system has angered Beijing, prompting China to take economic retaliation. The China National Tourism Administration verbally ordered local travel agencies to stop selling tour packages to South Korea. The Korea Economic Daily said Sunday, citing unidentified officials, that Chinese authorities suspended businesses of four Lotte Mart stores for a month.
South Korea responded by saying it would ensure Korean companies don't face unfair trade measures in China. South Korea's government is "deeply concerned about the measures taken in China and will closely monitor the situation and strengthen responses," Trade Minister Joo Hyung-Hwan said Sunday.
In addition to the two this year, North Korea fired at least 25 projectiles last year, according to the UN. Pyongyang also detonated two nuclear devices in 2016. Mr Trump vowed to deal with North Korea "very strongly" after its February missile test.
North Korea relations have fallen to their worst point in decades and talks are off the table until the regime is ready to give up its nuclear weapons, South Korea Unification Minister Hong Yong-Pyo said last week in an interview.
"It's been over 20 years since North Korea's nuclear threats started, and tensions are at their worst," Mr Hong, who oversees policy on North Korea, said in Seoul.
"For the time being, the South Korean government's stance is that the North should show a will to denuclearise," he said.
"That means any dialogue should be based upon denuclearisation."