North Korea fired off an apparent rocket carrying a military spy satellite that passed over Okinawa Prefecture into the Pacific late Tuesday, prompting Japan to briefly issue a warning to take shelter for the southern prefecture.
“North Korea has fired what it claims is a military surveillance satellite in a southwards direction,” the Yonhap news agency quoted South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff as saying.
The South Korean military offered no other details of the launch, including whether the North successfully put the satellite into orbit on its third attempt this year, following failed launches in May and August.
After the rocket — which was launched at around 10:55 p.m. — appeared to pass over Okinawa, flying toward the Pacific Ocean at around 11:15 p.m., the rare warning via Japan’s J-Alert system for residents to take immediate cover was lifted.
Speaking to reporters at his office in Tokyo just before midnight, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida condemned the launch “in the strongest possible terms,” calling it “a serious situation that concerns the safety of our nation’s citizens.”
Kishida said Japan was working to gather information and would respond in cooperation with the United States and South Korea.
“Even if (the launch) was called a satellite, it used ballistic missile technology,” he said. “This is a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.”
Pyongyang is prohibited from conducting ballistic missile launches under United Nations Security Council resolutions, but has in the past said these measures do not cover its nominally civilian space program. Japan, South Korea and the U.S., however, view the launch of satellites as a thinly veiled means of advancing its missile program, since similar technology is employed.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government’s top spokesman told a hastily organized news conference after the launch that the rocket appeared to have been fired from North Korea’s Tongchang-ri area, which is home to its Sohae Satellite Launching Station.
“North Korea’s series of actions, including its repeated missile launches, threaten the peace and security of Japan, the region and the international community,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said.
Matsuno called the launch “an extremely problematic act from the perspective of ensuring the safety of residents as well as aircraft and ships,” but he said the government had not received any reports of harm or damage.
The launch came ahead of a window announced earlier Tuesday that would have seen it fired between Wednesday and Dec. 1, with Pyongyang brushing away warnings from Tokyo and Seoul not to go ahead with the move. It was not immediately clear why the North had conducted the launch earlier, but rain and cloudy weather had been forecast for parts of the isolated country for Wednesday.
Earlier Tuesday, Japan “strongly demanded” that North Korea halt preparations for the launch.
Tokyo had deployed countermeasures in preparation for a potential shootdown of the rocket or debris, sending PAC-3 ground-based missile-defense batteries to Okinawa’s Miyako, Ishigaki and Yonaguni islands, while also deploying Maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis destroyers — which are equipped with SM-3 interceptors — to waters around Japan.
A PAC-3 ground-based missile-defense battery sits deployed at the Air Self-Defense Force base on Okinawa Prefecture’s Miyako Island late Tuesday.
Since 1998, the North has attempted six satellite launches, with just two appearing to have been successfully placed in orbit, the last in 2016.
On Monday, South Korea also demanded the North immediately halt preparations for the launch, suggesting that Seoul could suspend an inter-Korean peace deal and resume front-line aerial surveillance in retaliation.
Separately Monday, the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier arrived at the South Korean naval base in the port city of Busan in a show of allied force ahead of the launch.
South Korea said the arrival of the Vinson — the third aircraft carrier to visit the country this year — demonstrated Washington and Seoul’s “firm resolve to respond to advancing North Korean nuclear and missile threats.”
The latest launch comes after a period of relative quiet — the North last fired off a missile on Sept. 13 — though the country has continued to spew vitriol over Tokyo, Seoul and Washington’s growing trilateral security ties.
That missile launch came just ahead of a visit to Russia by leader Kim Jong Un for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
South Korea has said Pyongyang is providing Moscow with weapons in exchange for Russian space technology know-how. Putin suggested during his meeting with Kim that his country could help the North build satellites.
North Korea’s state-run media has called the country’s spy satellite program an “indispensable” measure to counter U.S. and allied space militarization.
The North has been seeking to put a military reconnaissance satellite into orbit as part of a broader modernization plan to monitor U.S. and allied forces, though defense experts say doing so can be exceedingly difficult.
Observers also say it’s unclear how advanced a North Korean satellite would be, considering the daunting challenges of camera performance, hard-to-come-by components and limited time windows for snapping shots of military sites.
The J-Alert system warns of a North Korean rocket launch late Tuesday in Tokyo.