By Anna Fifield, Washington Post–

North Korea launched four missiles Monday morning, a provocative barrage that coincided both with joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises on the southern half of the peninsula and with the opening of the annual National People’s Congress in China.

The launches follow a remarkable month in which Kim Jong Un’s regime tested a solid-fuel rocket that it says is part of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States and in which the regime is accused of assassinating the leader’s half brother.

Both actions have angered allies and adversaries in the region, and Monday’s launches will only exacerbate that.

“Every year this time, they try to do something to defy the exercises,” said Bruce Bennett, a North Korea expert at the Rand Corp. in California. “This time, I think they’re also interested in making a statement to the Chinese and to let Beijing know this coal ban is going to hurt,” he said, referring to Beijing’s decision last month to stop importing coal from North Korea, cutting off a major economic lifeline.

The four missiles were fired from a known launch site on North Korea’s west coast, not far from the border with China, at 7:36 a.m. local time. They flew more than 600 miles across the country before splashing into the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a text message to local reporters.

The joint chiefs initially suspected that at least one of the projectiles might have been an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States’ West Coast, but later backed away from that analysis. A U.S. defense official said the Pentagon does not think the missile was an ICBM.

The U.S. Strategic Command said its systems detected and tracked the projectile but “determined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America.”

[China suspends North Korean coal imports, striking at regime’s financial lifeline]

Regardless, the launches have ratcheted up the tensions in the region.

“South Korea strongly condemns North Korea’s missile launch today as a direct challenge and grave provocation despite warnings by the international community,” Hwang Kyo-ahn, the prime minister who is acting president, said during an emergency meeting of the national security council. “North Korea’s nuclear missile provocation is a real and imminent threat against the lives and safety of South Koreans.”

In Japan, the government said three of the missiles had landed perilously close, splashing down within its exclusive economic zone and within about 200 miles of its coastline in Akita prefecture.

“These missile launches clearly show that North Korea has developed a new threat,” a visibly worried Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo. “We will collect information and strongly protest to North Korea.”