The Japanese government briefly warned residents of Okinawa Prefecture on Tuesday to take shelter after North Korea launched what the South Korean military said was a rocket carrying a military spy satellite.
“North Korea has fired what it claims is a military surveillance satellite toward the South,” Yonhap news agency cited South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff as saying.
After the rocket appeared to fly toward the Pacific Ocean around 11:15 p.m., the rare warning issued by Japan’s J-Alert system telling residents to immediately take shelter was lifted.
The launch came ahead of a window announced earlier Tuesday that would have seen the launch between Wednesday and Dec. 1, with Pyongyang ignoring warnings from Tokyo and Seoul not to pursue the operation. It’s unclear why the North launched early, but rain and cloudy weather were forecast for Wednesday in parts of the isolated country.
It is Pyongyang’s third attempt this year, following the lonesome country’s failure to orbit a reconnaissance satellite in attempts in May and August.
Tokyo had deployed countermeasures in anticipation of a possible 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 Aegis destroyers of the Maritime Self-Defense Force, which are equipped with SM-3 interceptors – in the waters around Japan.
Earlier on Tuesday, Japan “strongly requested” North Korea to stop preparations for the launch, with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida later adding that Tokyo had prepared for “unforeseen circumstances” and had cooperated with states -United and South Korea to respond to a launch.
“Even if the goal is to launch a satellite, the use of ballistic missile technology violates a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions,” Kishida said, calling the move “a major concern in matters of national security.
Pyongyang is prohibited from carrying out ballistic missile launches under United Nations Security Council resolutions, but has said in the past that such measures do not cover its nominally civilian space program. Japan, South Korea and the United States, however, view satellite launches as a thinly veiled means of advancing their missile programs, as similar technology is used.
Since 1998, the North has attempted six satellite launches, of which only two appear to have been successfully placed into orbit, the last in 2016.
On Monday, South Korea demanded the North immediately stop preparations for the launch, suggesting Seoul could suspend the inter-Korean peace deal and resume front-line aerial surveillance in retaliation.
Separately, on Monday, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson arrived at the South Korean naval base in the port city of Busan in a pre-launch allied show of force.
South Korea said the arrival of the Vinson – the third aircraft carrier to visit the country this year – demonstrated Washington and Seoul’s “firm determination to respond to growing North Korean nuclear and missile threats.”
The latest announcement comes after a period of relative calm – the North last fired a missile on September 13 – even as the country continued to spew vitriol over growing trilateral security ties between Tokyo, Seoul and Washington.
The missile launch comes just before leader Kim Jong Un’s visit to Russia for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
South Korea said Pyongyang was supplying weapons to Moscow in exchange for Russian know-how in space technology. Putin suggested during his meeting with Kim that his country could help the North build satellites.
North Korean state media has called the country’s spy satellite program an “indispensable” measure to counter U.S. and allied space militarization.
The North is seeking to orbit a military reconnaissance satellite as part of a broader modernization plan to monitor U.S. and allied forces, although defense experts say it can be extremely difficult.
Observers also say it is difficult to know how advanced a North Korean satellite would be, given the daunting challenges of camera performance, hard-to-find components and limited time windows to take photos of military sites.