North Korea fired a ballistic missile from the sea on Wednesday, South Korea's military said, a suggestion that it may have tested an underwater-launched missile for the first time in three years ahead of a resumption of nuclear talks with the United States this weekend.
The North Korea missile flew about 450 kilometres (280 miles) at a maximum altitude of 910 kilometres (565 miles) after liftoff from an unspecified place in the waters off the North's eastern coastal town of Wonsan, Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. South Korean and US intelligence authorities were analysing details of the launch, it said.
Japan lodged an immediate protest against North Korea, saying the missile landed inside Japan's exclusive economic zone. If confirmed, it would be the first North Korean missile that has landed that close to Japan since November 2017.
The US State Department said it calls on North Korea "to refrain from provocations, abide by their obligations under UN Security Council resolutions, and remain engaged in substantive and sustained negotiations to do their part to ensure peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and achieve denuclearisation".
South Korean military officials wouldn't officially disclose whether the missile was fired from a submarine, a barge or another possible platform. But during an emergency National Security Council meeting, council members placed weight on the possibility that North Korea performed a submarine-launched missile test and expressed "strong concerns" over the North Korean move, according to South Korea's presidential office.
Missiles launched from submarines are harder to detect in advance. Some experts say North Korea is attempting to raise the stakes and ramp up pressure on the United States before their nuclear negotiators meet on Saturday.
"The North is trying to convey a message that time is not on the side of the United States and that it could take a different path if the working-level talks don't go the way it wanted," said Du Hyeogn Cha, a visiting scholar at Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff statement said the weapon fired on Tuesday is believed to be a "Pukguksong-class" missile. It refers to a solid-fuel missile that North Korea tested-launched from an underwater platform in 2016 with the hope that it could eventually be a part of its submarine weaponry. That missile flew 500 kilometres (310 miles), and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said at the time that his country had gained "perfect nuclear-attack capability".
North Korea has been trying to develop the ability to fire ballistic missiles from submarines, though the tests needed for that appear to have been put off while it has been engaged in nuclear diplomacy with the United States since early last year.
When North Korea's news agency in July publicised photos of a newly built submarine and said its operational deployment "is near at hand," some outside experts said it was the North's biggest submarine with several launch tubes for missiles. An estimated 70 other submarines possessed by North Korea only have launch tubes for torpedoes, not missiles, according to the experts.
Cha said flight data provided by South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff suggested that it was more likely that the North tested the same type of missile it fired in 2016, instead of a new weapons system.
Japan also confirmed the North Korean missile launch. It earlier said North Korea fired two missiles but later corrected itself and said there had been a single launch and perhaps the missile broke into two parts.
Japanese Defence Minister Taro Kono said the missile fell inside Japan's exclusive economic zone. He called the launch "a serious threat to Japanese national security".
Kono also said the launch without advance warning was an "extremely problematic and dangerous act" for the safety of vessels and aircraft.
Kono declined to say whether it was a submarine-launched missile.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned the launch and said it violated UN resolutions that ban North Korea from conducting any launch using ballistic technology.
"We will continue to cooperate with the US and the international community and do the utmost to maintain and protect the safety of the people as we stay on alert," Abe said.
The launch may also be seen as a way for North Korea to express its displeasure over South Korea displaying for the first time some of its newly purchased US-made F-35 stealth fighter jets at its Armed Forces Day ceremony on Tuesday. The North has called the F-35 purchases a grave provocation that violate recent inter-Korean agreements aimed at lowering military tensions.
Cha stressed the North Korean launch demonstrated its expanding ability to strike allies South Korea and Japan, not the US mainland.
North Korea has been maintaining its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests since Kim began diplomacy with US President Donald Trump.
But since his second summit with Trump in Vietnam in February collapsed without reaching any agreement, Kim has hinted at scrapping that weapons test moratorium and demanded that Trump come up with mutually acceptable new proposals by December. In Vietnam, Trump rejected Kim's calls for broad sanctions relief in exchange for partially surrendering the North's nuclear capabilities.
Tuesday's launch, which was North Korea's ninth round of weapons tests since late July, came hours after Choe Son Hui, North Korea's first vice minister of foreign affairs, said North Korea and the United States have agreed to resume working-level nuclear negotiations on Saturday following a preliminary contact on Friday.
US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, travelling with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Rome, confirmed that US and North Korean officials plan to meet within the next week.
Both North Korea and the United States didn't say where the meetings would take place.