(ATTN: UPDATES with unification ministry's statement in paras 12-15)
By Kim Soo-yeon
SEOUL, Feb. 19 (Yonhap) -- North Korea said Sunday it has fired a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at a lofted angle in a "sudden launching" drill aimed at ensuring the country's powerful nuclear deterrent.
"The drill was suddenly organized without previous notice under an emergency firepower combat standby order given at dawn of February 18," the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in an English-language report.
The missile was launched at the international airport in Pyongyang in the afternoon, with a unit of the Missile General Bureau mobilized, it added.
It flew 989 kilometers for 4,015 seconds at an apogee of 5,768.5 km and landed in the international waters of the East Sea, according to the KCNA.
It marked the North's first ICBM launch since it fired a Hwasong-17 ICBM in November last year.
The North cited "military threats" of the United States and South Korea, which are "getting serious to the extent that can not be overlooked," and it ordered all military units in charge of missile operations to thoroughly maintain a combat readiness posture, the KCNA said.
The North's latest missile launch, its second missile provocation this year, came after it warned Friday the country will take "unprecedentedly persistent and strong" counteractions if Seoul and Washington press ahead with their planned combined military exercises.
The allies are scheduled to conduct a tabletop exercise at the Pentagon this week against the North's potential use of nuclear weapons. They also plan to hold the regular springtime Freedom Shield (FS) exercise next month, alongside concurrent large-scale field drills.
In a separate statement, Kim Yo-jong, a sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, also said the North will carry out a "very powerful and overwhelming" response to any hostile acts against Pyongyang.
"(The U.S.) should stop all the actions posing threats to the security of our state and refuse to tarnish the DPRK's dignity, always thinking twice for its own future security," she said in the English-language statement. DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
She also reaffirmed that the North has "no intention to stand face to face" with the South.
Seoul's unification ministry "deplored" her threat.
The North's regime is "oblivious" to the fact that its "reckless development of its nuclear and missile programs is responsible for the deterioration of the current security situation," the ministry handling inter-Korean affairs said.
It is deplorable that the North is using "sophistry" to pass the responsibility to the South and the U.S., it added.
If the regime continues provocative acts despite the grave food crisis facing its people, it will only deepen its isolation from the international community, it emphasized.
Observers here raise the possibility of the regime test-firing a solid-fuel ICBM in addition to an attempt to put a spy satellite into orbit.
Meanwhile, the top diplomats of South Korea, the U.S. and Japan had an emergency meeting in Munich on Saturday (local time) on the sidelines of an international security conference.
They condemned the North's latest provocation and vowed their close cooperation in dealing with Pyongyang's threats.
"North Korea will face more powerful sanctions by the international community. We urge the North to immediately stop its provocations and return to denuclearization talks," South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said in the wake of talks with Antony Blinken of the U.S. and Hayashi Yoshimasa of Japan.
He also said the North's ICBM firing Saturday is a "clear indication" of its intent on additional provocations.
"North Korea could conduct another nuclear test at any time," Park said during a panel discussion of the Munich Security Conference. "In that case, it would be a game changer in terms of North Korea's development and deployment of tactical nuclear weapons."
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