On Wednesday morning, North Korea fired a Nodong intermediate-range ballistic missile that, for the first time ever, splashed down in Japanese waters in the Sea of Japan. Pyongyang repeatedly tests missiles into the Sea of Japan, but had stopped short of firing into waters controlled by Japan. Wednesday’s launch suggests that Pyongyang is seeking to demonstrate a capability and willingness to strike regional states beyond South Korea, including Japan, an important U.S. ally. Earlier this year, Pyongyang tested its Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile, demonstrating a capability to strike the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.
A Japanese defense official noted that the missile was found in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe strongly condemned the attack, describing it as a “grave threat” and “an outrageous act that cannot be tolerated.” Gary Ross, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Defense, said that the incident “only serves to increase the international community’s resolve to counter [North Korea’s] prohibited activities.” North Korea is banned from developing or testing ballistic missiles under UN Security Council resolutions.
According to U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which tracks missile launches, Pyongyang fired two Nodong missiles, one of which “exploded immediately after launch.” STRATCOM tracked the other missile into the Sea of Japan, but did not specify if the splashdown was simply near or actually inside Japanese waters. The missiles were launched from the western North Korean city of Hwangju and landed roughly 250 kilometers off the coast of Akita prefecture in Japan.
Wednesday’s launch comes weeks after the United States and South Korea decided to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the Korean peninsula, a decision that drew sharp criticism from North Korea. Additionally, Pyongyang reacted sharply to the United States’ decision to list Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, under new sanctions. A South Korean official, in the aftermath of Wednesday’s tests, said that Pyongyang is attempting to showcase its capability to “directly and broadly attack neighboring countries.”
The tests likely aren’t intended just for signaling and showmanship. North Korea is still trying to master its missile technology. That Pyongyang launched two Nodongs and one failed suggests that North Korean engineers may have been testing two different engine configurations. Despite the frequency of North Korean missile testing this year, Pyongyang is constantly looking to gain technical insight and improve its technology with each iteration. North Korea most recently tested Nodong missiles in mid-July.