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Japan says North Korea developing warheads to penetrate missile defences

TOKYO (Reuters) - Pyongyang appears to be developing warheads to penetrate a ballistic missile shield defending Japan, the country’s defence chief said on Tuesday, pointing to the irregular trajectories of the latest missiles launched by North Korea.

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Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told a news conference Japan believes the rockets were a new short-range ballistic missile, according to a ministry spokesman who confirmed his comments carried by domestic media.

Recent short-range missile tests by Pyongyang have stoked alarm in neighbouring Japan even as U.S. President Donald Trump has dismissed the launches as unimportant.

The United Nations Security Council discussed North Korea’s actions behind closed-doors on Tuesday at the request of Germany, France and Britain. The three countries condemned Pyongyang’s “repeated provocative launches” as violations of Security Council resolutions.

“International sanctions must remain in place and be fully and strictly enforced until North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes are dismantled. It is vital that the Security Council shows unity in upholding its resolutions,” Germany, Britain and France said in a joint statement after the meeting.

Saturday’s test firings came a day after Seoul said it was ending a military intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo, amid a worsening spat over wartime forced labour.

Iwaya and other Japanese officials called Seoul’s decision “irrational” as the threat posed by North Korea grows.

Japan and the United States have Aegis destroyers deployed in the Sea of Japan armed with interceptor missiles designed to destroy warheads in space. Japan also plans to build two land-based Aegis batteries to bolster its ballistic missile shield.

Those defence systems, however, are designed to counter projectiles on regular and therefore, predictable, trajectories, and any variation in flight path would make interception trickier.

Detailed analysis of the latest North Korean launches was underway with the United States, an official of South Korea’s defence ministry said on Tuesday.

Reporting by Tim Kelly in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Tom Brown