North Korea launches apparent ICBM ahead of South Korea-Japan summit

By Josh Smith and Soo-hyang Choi

SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korea fired a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan on Thursday, hours before South Korea’s president was due to fly to Tokyo for a summit expected to discuss ways to counter the nuclear-armed North.

North Korea has conducted multiple missile launches this week amid ongoing joint South Korea-U.S. military drills that Pyongyang condemns as hostile actions.

The missile, fired at 7:10 a.m. (2210 GMT on Wednesday) from Pyongyang, flew about 1,000 kilometres at a lofted trajectory, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

Japan’s defence ministry said the ICBM-type projectile appeared to have flown higher than 6,000 km for about 70 minutes.

It most likely landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zones, 200 km west of Oshima-Oshima Island in Hokkaido, northern Japan, the ministry said.

Japan has not confirmed any information on damage from the missile, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said, adding it had delivered a protest through North Korea’s embassy in Beijing.

“North Korea’s missile launch is a barbaric act that escalates its provocation to the entire international society,” Matsuno said. “We will confirm close cooperation with South Korea and the U.S. towards North Korea’s complete denuclearisation at the Japan-South Korea summit today.”

South Korea convened a national security council meeting and “strongly condemned” the missile launch as a grave act of provocation threatening international peace.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered his country’s military to carry out drills with the United States as planned, saying North Korea would pay for its “reckless provocations,” according to his office.

South Korean and American forces began 11 days of joint drills, dubbed “Freedom Shield 23,” on Monday, held on a scale not seen since 2017 to counter the North’s growing threats. North Korea has long bristled at the allies’ drills as a rehearsal for invasion.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan would also hold a national security council meeting over the launch.

“The regional peace and stability is the most important issue for relevant nations,” Kishida told reporters. “We need to build closer cooperation with all allies and friendly nations.”

Yoon is headed to Japan for the first such summit with Kishida in more than a decade, part of an effort to overcome historical, political and economic disputes in the name of better cooperating to counter North Korea and other challenges.

As part of the efforts, the two U.S. allies have agreed to share real-time tracking of North Korean missile launches, and have vowed to further deepen military cooperation.

Nuclear-armed North Korea fired an unprecedented number of missiles last year, including ICBMs that can reach the United States, while resuming preparations for its first nuclear test since 2017.

North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programmes are banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions, but Pyongyang says weapons development is necessary to counter “hostile policies” by Washington and its allies.

North Korea’s state news agency KCNA said on Sunday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un led a ruling party meeting to discuss and decide on “important practical” war deterrence measures, saying “provocations of the U.S. and South Korea are reaching the red-line.”

(Reporting by Hyunsu Yim, Josh Smith, Soo-hyang Choi and Ju-min Park in Seoul, Kantaro Komiya and Kaori Kaneko in Tokyo; Editing by Sandra Maler and Gerry Doyle)