North Korea has test-fired a suspected submarine-launched ballistic missile just days before South Korea inaugurates a new leader who has vowed to take a hard line against Pyongyang.
Seoul said the rocket was launched early on Saturday from near the eastern port city of Sinpo, where the North has a submarine base.
Japan also confirmed the launch, with the country’s prime minister Fumio Kishida ordering officials to prepare for all “unforeseeable situations” in response.
It comes ahead of the inauguration of the new conservative South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol, who has vowed to boost Seoul’s missile capability and strengthen its military alliance with Washington to deal with the threat posed by the North.
US President Joe Biden is to visit South Korea and meet with him on 21 May.
Earlier in the week, North Korea fired a ballistic missile from near its capital into the sea off its east coast after Kim Jong Un vowed to develop its nuclear arsenal “at the fastest possible speed”.
The latest launch is thought to be North Korea’s 15th round of missile firings this year, including its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 in March that demonstrated the potential to reach targets across the US.
There are also indications Pyongyang is preparing a site, where it had conducted its sixth and last nuclear test in September 2017, with a view to another possible explosive trial.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said: “A seventh nuclear test would be the first since September 2017 and raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula, increasing dangers of miscalculation and miscommunication between the Kim regime and the incoming Yoon administration.”
North Korea has been exploiting a favourable environment to press its weapons ambitions with the UN Security Council divided and preoccupied over Russia’s war on Ukraine.
The unusually fast pace in testing highlights a brinkmanship aimed at forcing the US to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and remove crippling sanctions, according to experts.
Mr Kim has used recent missile tests to warn the North could proactively use its nuclear weapons if threatened or provoked, which observers believe could herald an escalatory doctrine that would increase concerns of South Korea and Japan.
Pyongyang has been pushing hard to acquire the ability to fire nuclear-armed missiles from submarines, which in theory would bolster its deterrent by ensuring the capability to retaliate after a nuclear attack.
Ballistic missile submarines would also add a maritime threat to the North’s growing land-based arsenal.
However, experts say the heavily sanctioned nation would need more time, resources and technological improvements to build a fleet of submarines able to avoid detection and execute strikes.