North Korea may have fired a ballistic missile from a submarine, according to officials in South Korea, a day after it announced it would resume talks with the US aimed at ending its nuclear programme.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned the launch of what he said were two ballistic missiles, one of which fell in the waters of Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), saying it was a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Shortly afterwards, Japan's top government spokesman said the ballistic missile North Korea launched earlier in the day may have split into two before falling into waters off Japan's west coast.
"At the moment, it seems that one missile was launched and that split into two and fell. We are conducting analysis for details," chief Cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.
The launch was likely a reminder by the North, which rejects the UN resolutions banning the use of ballistic missile technology as an infringement on its right to self-defence, of its weapons capability ahead of the talks with Washington, analysts said.
Talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes have been stalled since a second summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam in February ended without a deal.
South Korea's military said it had detected the launch of one missile that flew 450km and reached an altitude of 910km. It was likely a Pukguksong-class weapon, as the North's earlier submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) were known, that is under development.
The National Security Council in Seoul expressed "strong concern" over the launch of what it said may have been an SLBM, according to a statement issued by the presidential Blue House, that came just a day after the announcement of working-level nuclear talks.
South Korea's military said the missile was launched from around Wonsan, the site of one of North Korea's military bases on the east coast, towards the sea. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy with Japan's assessment that two missiles had been fired.
North Korea had been developing SLBM technology before it suspended long-range missile and nuclear tests and began talks with the United States that led to the first summit between Mr Kim and Mr Trump in Singapore in June 2018.
Months of stalemate
A senior US administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "We are aware of reports of a possible North Korean missile launch. We are continuing to monitor the situation and consulting closely with our allies in the region."
The latest launch was the ninth since Mr Trump and Mr Kim met at the Demilitarised Zone border between the two Koreas in June and pledged to reopen working-level talks within weeks.
Hours before today's launch, North Korean vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said in a statement the talks would be held on Saturday in a development that could potentially break what had been months of stalemate.
North Korea's previous missile launch was on 10 September, also hours after Mr Choe had expressed Pyongyang's willingness for talks with the United States.
"It seems North Korea wants to make its negotiating position quite clear before talks even begin," said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies from the Centre for the National Interest.
"Pyongyang seems set to push Washington to back off from past demands of full denuclearisation for what are only promises of sanctions relief," he said.
Mr Trump has played down North Korea's recent series of short-range launches, saying in September the United States and North Korea "didn't have an agreement on short-range missiles" and that many countries test such weapons.
North Korea continued its attack against South Korea in a commentary in its official newspaper today, criticising its joint military drills with the United States as "unchangingly aggressive".
"The root cause of the stalemate in the North-South relations lies, in short, in the South Korean authorities' treacherous behaviour," the Rodong Sinmun commentary said.