North Korea flaunts ballistic missiles as Japan and South Korea meet

North Korea launched two mid-range ballistic missiles off its eastern coast as Japan and South Korea took a first step toward mending strained ties.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
A man passes by television airing a news program showing file footage of a North Korean rocket carried during a military parade at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. North Korea test-fired two medium-range ballistic missiles off its eastern coast on Wednesday, as Japan and South Korea leaders meet.

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US President Barack Obama brought together the sparring leaders of Japan and South Korea last night – but it was North Korea, thousands of miles away, that may have played the biggest role in helping the two countries find common ground.

At almost the exact moment that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye sat down with President Obama at The Hague, North Korea defiantly launched two medium-range ballistic missiles off its east coast toward Japan. According to an official from South Korea, the missiles traveled about 400 miles before crashing into the sea, far short of the distance they are capable of reaching, Reuters reports.

Relations between Japan and South Korea have been strained by the reemergence of disputes over Japan's wartime behavior and colonial rule, as well as a long-running tussle over islets in the Japan Sea, The Christian Science Monitor reports. This was the first face-to-face talk between Tokyo and Seoul's leaders since Abe took office in 2012.

North Korea's medium-range missile launches, its first in four years, may help improve cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul, according to a separate Reuters report. Along with the United States, the two Asian powers condemned the launch.

"I think it's very important for our three nations to display this kind of unity and shared determination," President Obama said following the meeting.

"Japan and South Korea both value freedom and democracy and are important neighbors.... It's extremely important for both countries and for the security of East Asia as a whole that we establish a future-oriented relationship," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told Agence France-Presse.

'Intensifying monitoring'

North Korea in recent weeks has set off a number of short-range missiles, launching an estimated 30 this past Monday. Annual military exercises between the US and South Korea are taking place on the peninsula, and are scheduled to continue until mid-April, reports The Los Angeles Times. The short-range missiles didn’t garner much attention. But today’s launch is considered a violation of a 2009 United Nations Security Council resolution that followed Pyongyang’s second nuclear test.

Several UN resolutions restrict ballistic missile launches, and some specifically prompt North Korea to "suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program and to re-establish a moratorium on missile launches," reports CNN.

“Our government is intensifying monitoring of North Korea’s military and preparing for all possible outcomes," said Kim Min-seok, spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, according to the Donga Ilbo newspaper.

"We call on North Korea to immediately cease all provocative behavior,” Mr. Kim said.

Prior to the missile launches, relations have appeared to be slowly warming between the two Koreas, reports The Los Angeles Times. Family reunions for those separated during the Korean war took place for the first time since 2010, for example.

However, today’s launches coincide with the four-year anniversary of the sinking of a South Korean warship that left more than 40 dead. Seoul blames North Korea for the sinking, which a team of international investigators found was caused by a torpedo, reports Time.

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