North Korea's test-firing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile drew rebukes from Japan and South Korea and condemnation from the United Nations on Wednesday.

The missile flew about 500 kilometres before falling into Japan's Defence Identification Zone in the Sea of Japan, making it the first time a North Korean missile has struck that body of water, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.

“It is a major threat to our country’s national security," the premier said. "It is an outrageous act that severely undermines the region’s peace and stability. We lodged a stern protest with North Korea.”

South Korea's joint chiefs of staff said North Korea launched the missile from waters off its east coast at around 5:30 am on Wednesday (2030 GMT Tuesday).

The latest test showed Pyongyang has improved its missile capability, said Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who was holding talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and South Korea's Yun Byung Se in Tokyo.

"North Korea should realize it will face tougher sanctions and deeper diplomatic isolation, and will quicken the pace of its self-destruction, if it continues to ignore the people's severe livelihood and tries only to advance nuclear and missile capabilities,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The United Nations condemned the launch, said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, calling it "deeply troubling." He urged North Korea to take steps to "de-escalate the situation and return to dialogue on denuclearization."

The UN Security Council was set to discuss the issue at an emergency meeting later on Wednesday.

Washington also responded to the launch. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the US continues to be concerned "by the continued destabilizing and provocative actions by the North Korean regime."

The US will seek to unite the international community to isolate and pressure North Korea to change its behaviour, he said, noting China has its own reasons to limit North Korean aggression despite Beijing's concerns over the station of a US anti-missile system in South Korea.

The European Union also criticized Pyongyang’s latest launch.

North Korea “must halt all missile launches using ballistic missile technology and abandon its ballistic missile programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner,” the EU's diplomatic service said in a statement.

“Peace and stability in the region requires that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea refrains from any further action that increases tensions and engages in a credible and meaningful dialogue with the international community,” the statement said, referring to North Korea’s official name.

North Korea has launched a series of ballistic missiles in defiance of UN resolutions against the communist regime's use of such military technology.

Wednesday’s launch comes two days after the US and South Korea started an annual joint military exercise, which Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for invasion.

North Korea threatened Monday to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on South Korea and the US in protest of the exercises.

On Tuesday, North Korea called on the UN Security Council in New York to hold a meeting to discuss "the aggressive joint military exercise," Ja Song Nam, North Korean ambassador to the UN, said in a letter to the council.

He called the joint exercise "a grave military provocation aimed to launch a preemptive nuclear attack" against North Korea.

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