US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have both condemned North Korea's test firing of a ballistic missile that overflew Japan, the White House said today after a call between the two leaders.

"The leaders jointly condemned (North Korea's)... missile test in the strongest terms, recognising the launch as a danger to the Japanese people, destabilising to the region, and a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions," a statement said.

Mr Biden also reiterated the United States' "ironclad commitment to Japan's defence," the statement said.

North Korea fired the ballistic missile over Japan for the first time in five years today, prompting Tokyo to activate its missile alert system and issue a rare warning for people to take shelter.

The latest launch comes in a record year of sanctions-busting weapons tests by North Korea, which recently revised its laws to declare itself an "irreversible" nuclear power.

The last time Pyongyang fired a missile over Japan was in 2017, at the height of a period of "fire and fury" when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un traded insults with former US president Donald Trump.

South Korea said the intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) flew some 4,500kms - possibly a new distance record for North Korean tests, which are usually conducted on a lofted trajectory to avoid flying over neighbouring countries.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol called the launch a "provocation" that violated UN regulations, and vowed a "stern response", in a statement issued by his office.

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In response to the test, US and South Korean warplanes practiced bombing a target in the Yellow Sea and fighter jets from the United States and Japan also carried out joint drills over the Sea of Japan, the US military said.

Mr Kishida described Pyongyang's latest test as "an act of violence", while European Union head Charles Michel called it "an unjustified aggression".

The US State Department said the "reckless and dangerous launch" posed "an unacceptable threat to the Japanese public".

Japanese Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada said the missile could have been a Hwasong-12.

Pyongyang used Hwasong-12s the last two times it fired missiles over Japan - in August and September 2017 - tweeted Chad O'Carroll of specialist site NK News.

Japan activated its missile warning system and urged people in two northern regions of the country to take shelter early today.

People in Tokyo walk past a screen showing North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un during a broadcast
about the missile launch

Nuclear message

Today's test is Pyongyang's fifth missile launch in 10 days and sends a clear message to the United States, Park Won-gon, professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha University in Seoul, said.

The missiles "put South Korea, Japan, and Guam within range", and show that Pyongyang could hit US bases with nukes if war broke out on the Korean peninsula, he said.

"As these are missiles that can carry nuclear warheads, the launch also has a political goal of once again declaring North Korea a de facto nuclear power and showing its complete denuclearisation is impossible," Mr Park added.

Seoul, Tokyo and Washington have been ramping up joint military drills to counter Pyongyang's growing threats, staging the first trilateral anti-submarine drills in five years on Friday.

That came just days after the US and South Korean navies conducted large-scale exercises. Such drills infuriate North Korea, which sees them as rehearsals for an invasion.

US Vice President Kamala Harris visited Seoul last week and toured the heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone that divides the Korean peninsula, on a trip to underscore her country's "ironclad" commitment to South Korea's defence.

About 28,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea to help protect it from the North.

Significant escalation

Firing a missile over Japan represented a "significant escalation" by North Korea, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University.

"Pyongyang is still in the middle of a provocation and testing cycle," he added.

South Korean and US officials have been warning for months that Mr Kim is preparing to conduct another nuclear test, saying last week that this could happen soon after Pyongyang's key ally China holds a Communist Party congress from 16 October.

Pyongyang has tested nuclear weapons six times since 2006, most recently in 2017.

"North Korea always starts with a low-level provocation and gradually raises the level to attract media attention from all over the world," said Go Myong-hyun, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

"Their final provocation will probably be a nuclear test," he said, adding that North Korea had taken the unusual and "very aggressive" step of overflying Japan to attract more attention.

"By launching the missile over Japan, they are showing that their nuclear threat is not just targeting South Korea."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held phone calls with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts during which they "strongly condemned" the North's latest test. The launch violates UN Security Council resolutions, which have imposed sanctions over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programmes.

EU chief Charles Michel condemned the North Korean action and said the bloc "stands in solidarity" with Tokyo and Seoul.

"Strongly condemn North Korea's deliberate attempt to jeopardize security in the region by firing a ballistic missile over Japan. An unjustified aggression and blatant violation of international law," Mr Michel wrote on Twitter.