The Guradian | Justin McCurry in Tokyo and agencies | Thursday 8 June 2017 00.34 BST
Missiles land in part of Sea of Japan where USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan had been conducting manoeuvres this week
An image from last month of the Hwasong 12, a new type of ballistic missile, being tested at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Photograph: AP
North Korea has fired a volley of what appeared to be land-to-ship missiles, hours after a senior US official said the regime’s recent advances in missile technology were causing “great concern” in Washington.
South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said several missiles – which are not thought to be ballistic – were launched from the North Korean eastern coastal town of Wonsan on Thursday morning.
They flew an estimated 200km and were intended to demonstrate the North’s ability to target a large enemy warship, the South Korean military said.
The salvo was aimed at an area in the Sea of Japan recently visited by two US aircraft carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan. The vessels left the area earlier this week after conducting joint manoeuvres with South Korean and Japanese forces.
“North Korea likely wanted to show off its ability to precisely target a large warship, in relation to the joint military drills involving US aircraft carriers,” Roh Jae-cheon, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff spokesman, told reporters. “By testing different types of missiles, North Korea also appears to be aiming to secure the upper hand in relations with South Korea and the United States.”
At the end of last month, the North fired a short-range scud missile that landed in Japan’s maritime economic zone, drawing strong protests from Tokyo. The regime claimed that the rocket was equipped with a precision control guidance system and had landed within seven metres of its target.
In mid-May, it tested a powerful new midrange missile that it said could carry a nuclear warhead. That rocket flew higher and for a longer period than any other missile previously tested by North Korea.
Thursday’s multiple missile launches present an early diplomatic test for South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, a left-leaning liberal who supports engagement with Pyongyang as way of reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea has conducted four missiles launches in just over four weeks, in defiance of warnings from Donald Trump that the US would not rule out military action to prevent the regime from developing a nuclear-armed missile capable of striking the US mainland.
Pyongyang is believed to be at least three years away from building an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with sufficient range, but it already has conventional missiles capable of striking US military bases in South Korea and Japan.
The head of the US missile defence agency, vice admiral James Syring, warned that officials should assume that the US would one day be within reach of a North Korean nuclear missile.
“I would not say we are comfortably ahead of the threat; I would say we are addressing the threat that we know today,” Syring told a hearing of the house armed services committee on Wednesday. “The advancements in the last six months have caused great concern to me and others, in the advancement of and demonstration of technology of ballistic missiles from North Korea.
“It is incumbent on us to assume that North Korea today can range the United States with an ICBM carrying a nuclear warhead.”
Experts said Thursday’s launches were designed to show North Korea would not be pressured into abandoning its nuclear and missile programmes, a week after the UN security council adopted sanctions targeting North Korean officials and companies.
“North Korea has been stepping up missile tests … to project an image to the world that international sanctions can never bring it to its knees,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
Yang said the regime was also responding to the arrival earlier this week of a US nuclear submarine, the USS Cheyenne, in the South Korea port of Busan.
North Korea insists it has the right to develop nuclear weapons in response to US “aggression,” citing the recent presence of the US aircraft carriers in waters off the peninsula.
The foreign ministry in Pyongyang said in a recent statement that Washington’s opposition to missile tests was “the height of shameless arrogance, self-righteousness and double standards” given that the US was engaged in its own “military buildup”.
In response to the higher frequency of North Korean missile tests in recent months, the US and South Korea accelerated the deployment of a controversial missile defence system earlier this year.
But on Wednesday, South Korea said it would suspend further deployments of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence – known as Thaad – system until it has completed an environmental impact assessment, amid concern from local residents that its powerful radar could affect their health and livelihoods.
The review, ordered by Moon’s office, will not affect two launchers already in operation in the south-eastern region of Seongju, but it could delay the introduction of a remaining four launchers by more than a year, according to officials at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.
The review was ordered after Moon’s office complained that it had not been told about the arrival of the additional launchers – which have not been installed – last week.
“It doesn’t make sense to withdraw the two initial launchers which had already been deployed and installed, but additional installation will be decided after the environmental impact assessment is over,” a South Korean administration official told reporters.
The Pentagon said it would work with Seoul to ensure transparency, but added that it did not think the review would threaten Thaad’s future. “The US trusts the [South Korean government’s] official stance that the Thaad deployment was an alliance decision and it will not be reversed,” a Pentagon spokesman said.
China has urged South Korea to abandon Thaad, whose deployment was agreed by Moon’s conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye.
Beijing claims that the system could be used to track its own missile programme and represents a threat to China’s security.
“China’s position is very clear. No matter what happens, we are firmly opposed to the deployment of the Thaad system by the US in the Republic of Korea,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Wednesday.