North Korea test-fires missile into sea ahead of Trump-Xi meeting

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SEOUL, April 5 (Reuters) - North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast on Wednesday, South Korea's military said, ahead of a summit between U.S. and Chinese leaders who are set to discuss Pyongyang's increasingly defiant arms program.

The missile flew about 60 km (40 miles) from its launch site at Sinpo, a port city on North Korea's east coast, the South Korean Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. Sinpo is home to a North Korean submarine base.

The launch comes just a day before the start of a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, where talks about adding pressure on the North to drop its arms development will take center stage.

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Evidence of strained ties along the China/North Korea border
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Evidence of strained ties along the China/North Korea border
Men rest on the North Korean side of the Yalu River north of the town of Sinuiju, North Korea, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A North Korean soldier guards the gate on banks of the Yalu River, north of Sinuiju, North Korea, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
North Korean soldiers react as a boat sails from the Chinese side of the Yalu River, north of the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A man and boys enter the water on an ox-cart from the North Korean side of the Yalu River, just north of the town of Sinuiju, North Korea, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A North Korean soldier sits on a bank of the Yalu River just north of Sinuiju, North Korea, April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Tourists walk on the Broken Bridge, bombed by the U.S. forces in the Korean War and now a tourist site, over the Yalu River that divides North Korea and China, in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 

People gather around a fortune teller in front of the Broken and Friendship bridges across the Yalu River in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

A North Korean soldier looks from a watchtower on the banks of the Yalu River, just north of Sinuiju, North Korea, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
North Korean soldiers patrol behind a border fence near the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in China's Liaoning province, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A vendor receives Chinese money after selling North Korean goods to tourists on a boat taking them from the Chinese side of the Yalu River for sightseeing close to the shores of North Korea, near Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A girl stands on a ferry on the North Korean side of the Yalu River, just north of Sinuiju, North Korea, April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
North Korean farmers work in a field as a section of the Great Wall is seen on the Chinese side of the Yalu River, north of the town of Sinuiju in North Korea and Dandong in China's Liaoning province, April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
Lights are turned on on the Friendship and the Broken bridges over the Yalu River connecting the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
Workers stand on pile of goods at a port near North Korean town of Sinuiju, across the Yalu River from Dandong, in China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
Tourists from the Chinese side of the Yalu River sail in front of a North Korean boat ferrying people north of the town of Sinuiju in North Korea and Dandong in China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
Tourists pose with Chinese flag on a boat taking them from the Chinese side of the Yalu River for sightseeing close to the the shores of North Korea, near Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
Tourists gather to watch North Korean side of the Yalu River from the Broken Bridge, bombed by the U.S. forces in the Korean War and now a tourist site, in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A woman in traditional dress invites customers to a North Korean restaurant on the banks of the Yalu River in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A souvenir vendor takes a nap in front of barbed wire marking the border between North Korea and China, just north of Dandong in China's Liaoning province, April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Tourists look from a boat taking them from the Chinese side of the Yalu River for sightseeing close to the shores of North Korea, near Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A security officer guards an entrance of a luxury apartment complex built and offered for sale on the Moon Island on the Yalu River, in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A man sits between binoculars he offers to tourists to watch the North Korean side of the Yalu River from the Broken Bridge, bombed by the U.S. forces in the Korean War and now a tourist site, in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A couple gets ready for their wedding photo session on a boat that takes tourists from Chinese side of the Yalu River for sightseeing close to the shores of North Korea, near Dandong, China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A woman exercises as a man stands at the banks of the Yalu River across from the North Korean town of Sinuiju, in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A rocking chair is placed on the balcony of a luxury apartment overlooking the North Korean town of Sinuiju, in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A man pauses at the banks of the Yalu River across from the North Korean town of Sinuiju, in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
The North Korean side of the Yalu River and the Broken Bridge, bombed by U.S. forces in the Korean War and now a tourist site, are seen from a hotel room in Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
A man carrying fishing net wades through shallow waters of the Yalu River between China and North Korea, north of Dandong, China's Liaoning province, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 
The sun rises through fog over the Friendship and the Broken bridges over the Yalu River connecting the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in China's Liaoning province, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
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"The launch took place possibly in consideration of the U.S. -China summit, while at the same time it was to check its missile capability," a South Korean official told Reuters about the military's initial assessment of the launch.

The missile was fired at a high angle and reached an altitude of 189 km (117 miles), the official said.

Any launch of objects using ballistic missile technology is a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The North has defied the ban, saying it infringes on its sovereign rights to self-defense and the pursuit of space exploration.

The launch drew swift condemnation from Japan, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying further provocative action was possible.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga described the launch as "extremely problematic" and said Tokyo had lodged a strong protest.

South Korea's foreign ministry also condemned the launch as a blunt challenge to a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions targeting North Korea's nuclear and missile program. Seoul called a National Security Council meeting and vowed to respond strongly in case of further provocations.

SEE ALSO: Japanese PM says further provocative action is possible from North Korea

In a terse statement, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: "The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment."

Trump wants China to do more to exert its economic influence over unpredictable Pyongyang to restrain its nuclear and missile programs.

China has denied it has any outsized influence on Pyongyang and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying ruled out the chance of a link between the launch and the summit, saying, "I can't see any certain connection between these two things."

Ahead of the U.S.-China summit in Florida, Trump had threatened to use crucial trade ties with China to pressure Beijing into more action on North Korea.

A senior U.S. White House official said Trump wanted to work with China and described the discussions over North Korea as a test for the U.S.-Chinese relationship.

ICBM THREAT

North Korea could choose to continue with missile-related activities through next week, when the isolated and impoverished country celebrates the 105th anniversary of the birth of the state's founder, Kim Il Sung.

It has used the anniversary in previous years to test-fire the intermediate-range Musudan ballistic missile and to launch long-range rockets to try to put satellites into orbit.

SEE ALSO: Russia blames deadly Syrian gassing on rebels' own chemical arsenal

An expert on the North's political strategy warned against reading too much political significance into the timing of the tests ahead of the U.S-China summit.

"They may have taken the summit into account to pick a day but, to me, it is more likely to catch up with its own missile development roadmap for their technical needs," said Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University's Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

North Korea failed in an attempt to launch a ballistic missile from its east coast two weeks ago. Earlier in March, it fired four missiles towards Japan, some of which came as close as 300 km (190 miles) to the Japanese coast.

It has also conducted two nuclear weapons tests since January 2016, all in defiance of U.N. sanctions.

RELATED: Inside North Korea's secretive missile program

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Inside North Korea's secretive missile program
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Inside North Korea's secretive missile program
A missile is carried by a military vehicle during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Engineers check the base of Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
A North Korean scientist looks at a monitor showing the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at the satellite control centre of the Korean Committee of Space Technology on the outskirts of Pyongyang April 11, 2012. North Korea said on Wednesday it was injecting fuel into a long-range rocket ahead of a launch condemned by its neighbours and the West. The launch is set to take place between Thursday and next Monday and has prompted neighbours such as the Philippines to re-route their air traffic. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
North Korean soldiers salute in a military vehicle carrying a missile during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Ko Yun-hwa (L), Administrator of Korea Meteorological Administration, points at where seismic waves observed in South Korea came from, during a media briefing at Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul, South Korea, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A sales assistant watches TV sets broadcasting a news report on North Korea's nuclear test, in Seoul, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Workers construct a new nuclear reactor in the North Korean village of Kumho in this file photo taken August 7, 2002. The United States urged North Korea December 21, 2002 not to restart a nuclear reactor suspected of being used to make weapons-grade plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that North Korea had disabled surveillance devices the agency had placed at the five-megawatt Nyongbyong reactor. REUTERS/Lee Jae-won/File Photo LJW/RCS/AA
A passenger walks past a television report on North Korea's nuclear test at a railway station in Seoul February 12, 2013. North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Tuesday, South Korea's defence ministry said, after seismic activity measuring 4.9 magnitude was registered by the U.S. Geological Survey. The epicentre of the seismic activity, which was only one km below the Earth's surface, was close to the North's known nuclear test site. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji (SOUTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A scientist stands beside the Kwangmyongsong-3 application satellite, to be put onto the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
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The U.S. and South Korean militaries said initial assessments indicated the latest launch was of a KN-15 medium-range ballistic missile, which would be the same kind North Korea test-launched in February.

Pyongyang tested a new type of medium- to long-range ballistic missile in February, which it later said was an upgraded, extended-range version of its submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

North Korea has carried out several SLBM tests near Sinpo.

"While it is entirely possible it was the land-based KN-15, it very well could have been a test of their SLBM system that was conducted on land," said Dave Schmerler, an expert at the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

The North is believed to be developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could hit the United States and its leader, Kim Jong Un, has vowed to test-launch one at any time.

Experts and officials in the South and the United States believe Pyongyang is still some time away from mastering all the technology needed for an operational ICBM system, such as re-entry into the atmosphere and subsequent missile guidance.

(Additional reporting by James Pearson in Seoul, Kaori Kaneko in Tokyo and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Clarence Fernandez)

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